285. Norman Greenbaum – Spirit in the Sky (1970)

The devil doesn’t always have the best tunes. Dana’s old-fashioned All Kinds of Everything was booted from the top by one of the most memorable one-hit wonders of all time. Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky heralded a new decade with its fuzz-guitar sound and could be considered a forerunner to the glam rock that was to come. This one-hit wonder, combining a riff you’d sell your soul for with holier-than-thou lyrics, was so good, two different versions have been number 1 since. Not bad going for an unassuming, enigmatic Jewish dairy farmer.

Norman Joel Greenbaum was born in Malden, Massachusetts on 20 November 1942. He was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, and as a teenager in the late 50s and early 60s he fell in love with southern blues and folk music. In high school he began performing in bands and went on to study music at Boston University, but dropped out and moved to Los Angeles in 1965.

In 1966 he formed the psychedelic jug band (think a less intense and more wacky The 13th Floor Elevators) Dr West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band and he penned their novelty single The Eggplant That Ate Chicago. They split in 1968. Clearly, Greenbaum was a unique talent.

Going it alone after signing with Reprise Records, Greenbaum set about writing a religious rock song, getting inspiration from country singer Porter Wagoner and enjoying westerns as a child. There was something in the air in the late 60s, with lots of songs moving away from references to drugs and turning to religion instead. Despite being Jewish, Greenbaum opted to sing about Jesus, because he knew it’d be more marketable then Jehovah. In an interview years later, he said it was ‘the spirit in the sky’ people should be taking notice of in his song, not ‘Jesus’. He took the phrase from a greetings card.

The music took a lot longer than the lyrics (which he claimed were done in 15 minutes), but it was worth the wait, with Greenbaum coming up with a laid-back yet fiery boogie groove in a San Francisco studio. The music provides a stark contrast to the holy lyrics and is so strong, it’s seen the song used in countless films and on TV. When Spirit in the Sky was mixed, he says it was optimised to sound good on car stereos without dynamic range, giving it an earthy, primitive quality.

Joining Greenbaum on the sessions were lead guitarist Russell DaShiell, bassist Doug Killmer from Crowfoot and drummer Norman Mayell, formerly of Sopwith Camel. The backing singers adding the gospel touch were The Stovall Sisters trio from Indiana. Before joining Earth, Wind & Fire, Philip Bailey was their percussionist.

The song became the title track of Greenbaum’s album, but Reprise were unsure this strange, lengthy track would make it as a 7”. Two other singles came out first, and they got nowhere, so they took a punt on Spirit in the Sky, released in the UK in December 1969.

And what a punt. I must have heard Greenbaum’s original a million times and yet I love it as much as ever. It’s a hell (pun intended) of a groove and I love the juxtaposition between the raw production and guitar effects and happy-clappy lyrics. It’s easy to get enveloped in it, and I could happily listen to a 10-minute version, and always feel it’s a shame it fades abruptly as the guitar stretches out. Future glam stars were certainly paying attention, for example Alvin Stardust’s My Coo Ca Choo is pretty similar.

Greenbaum may have never had another hit but some acts could take years to come up with one this good. He didn’t disappear straight away though – this was followed up by the bizarre Canned Ham, and he recorded two further albums – Back Home Again later this year, and the all-acoustic Petaluma in 1972.

Eventually Greenbaum’s music fizzled out, and he went to work in a friend’s café around the start of the 80s. Then in 1986 Doctor and the Medics released their cover, which took everyone by surprise when it reached number 1. The renewed interest sparked its use in films, and Greenbaum never needed to work again.

The one-hit wonder made headlines in 2015 when he was the passenger in a car accident that killed a motorcyclist and left him in a coma for three weeks. With perhaps a new-found appreciation of life, Greenbaum, now 77, returned to performing.

And yes, Spirit in the Sky went to number 1 yet again in 2003, with a version for Comic Relief by Gareth Gates with The Kumars, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I’m in no rush.

Written by: Norman Greenbaum

Producer: Erik Jacobsen

Weeks at number 1: 2 (2-15 May)

Births:

Cricketer Chris Adams – 6 May

Deaths:

Novelist Jack Jones – 7 May

283. Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge over Troubled Water (1970)

The first classic number 1 of the 70s, Bridge over Troubled Water‘s message of the importance of friendship in times of emotional pain made it one of the most famous songs of all time, and yet it did further damage to Simon & Garfunkel’s already strained relationship, and helped quicken their disintegration.

Paul Frederic Simon was born on 13 October 1941 in Newark, New Jersey. Arthur Ira Garfunkel was born 5 November in New York City, also 1941. They grew up three blocks from each other in Queens, New York and attended the same schools and admired The Everly Brothers. They became friends in 1953 when appearing in a sixth grade production of Alice in Wonderland. In addition to forming a street corner doo-wop quintet called The Peptones, Simon and Garfunkel began performing as a duo at school dances. In 1956 they wrote their first song, The Girl for Me and signed with independent label Big Records aged only 15.

As Tom & Jerry (Garfunkel was Tom Graph, Simon was Jerry Landis) the duo had some success with 1957 single Hey Schoolgirl, but were unable to follow it up. While both at university, and still officially a duo, Simon released a single under the name True Taylor. This can be seen as the first crack in their relationship, as it caused some resentment with Garfunkel.

They went their separate ways for some time, recording under a variety of names and working with other acts. Then in 1963, they both graduated from university and began to work together again. By now they had moved on from rock’n’roll and were both enjoying the burgeoning folk scene in Greenwich, and billed themselves as Kane & Garr. One of the songs they would perform was The Sound of Silence. Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson, who later helped Bob Dylan in his transition to electric, was impressed by the duo, and helped get them signed to the label.

In 1964, as Simon & Garfunkel, they recorded their debut LP, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. Featuring compositions by Simon and covers, it bombed, and Simon decided to move to the UK soon after, going solo once more.

Fast forward to 1965, and Simon had released solo album The Paul Simon Songbook, which hadn’t done too well. Garfunkel, who had been to visit his friend in the UK, was at Columbia University. Then everything changed.

The Sound of Silence was gaining in popularity with colleges on the radio, and Wilson decided to make a remix featuring electric instruments and drums, without telling either of them. Simon was horrified when he found out, but then the new folk-rock version hit number 1 in the US in January 1966. He hastily returned to the US, and they reunited to quickly record a new album, Sounds of Silence. Featuring remade versions of tracks from Simon’s solo LP, including I Am a Rock, it was a rush-job, but extremely popular, and they were famous at last.

They decided to take time over their third album, and became more interested in production, while making Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, released that October. With their version of Scarborough Fair/Canticle, and a remade Homeward Bound among the included material, it was one of their best collections.

Simon developed writer’s block while working on the next album, but managed to pen material for Mike Nichols’ smash romantic comedy The Graduate in 1967, including Mrs. Robinson. Fourth album Bookends eventually surfaced in 1968, and included the title track, America and Hazy Shade of Winter.

By now huge recording and touring stars, their partnership began to suffer, thanks in part to Garfunkel’s acting career. Simon was to join him in Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) but found his part written out. Matters were exacerbated by the filming taking longer than expected. Eventually they began work, with members of The Wrecking Crew and producer Roy Halee on their fifth and final album, turning down an invitation to perform at Woodstock Festival while doing so.

What was to become the title track began originally as a gentle two-verse guitar number that had been inspired in part by a line from 1958 song Mary Don’t You Weep, a gospel track by the Swan Silvertones: ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in me”. Simon later presented singer-songwriter Claude Jetter with a cheque to acknowledge his inspiration. The civil rights unrest and political assassinations in the stormy years leading up to this time also helped Simon come up with a message of hope.

Over the years, the duo have both given different stories over what happened next. Simon claimed he thought it would be perfect as a solo spot for Garfunkel’s angelic voice, but that he didn’t want to do it, and Simon felt hurt. Garfunkel says Simon was gracious when Garfunkel told him politely that he felt Simon should do it as it sounded lovely performed by him. Who knows – but I do know from reading and seeing interviews that both men can be oversensitive and precious.

Simon & Garfunkel, musicians and production crew assembled at CBS studios to work Bridge over Troubled Water out in November 1969. The final track to be recorded for the album, but the first to be completed, it was felt that, as nice as it was, the song should feature an extra verse, and open out to become a real epic in the style of a Phil Spector number. And so Simon wrote the ‘silver girl’ verse at Garfunkel’s suggestion, but wasn’t too keen. While some say it’s a reference to a drug user’s needle, it’s apparently an in-joke – Simon’s wife Peggy Harper had noticed she was turning grey. Simon seems to regret ever adding a third verse, and he’s not alone in that.

Bridge over Troubled Water has been criticised for being calculated and manipulative – a glossy exercise in tugging the heartstrings, and that it’s too epic, too, that it would have been better in its original incarnation. I understand all these points, and it’s certainly been used since in countless covers as the go-to song to make people emotional, but I think it’s simply a beautiful song and that no amount of stories of two stars whose egos were incompatible can spoilt it for me.

Simon is right in that the first verse, in particular, is the most moving. Garfunkel’s always beautiful voice is perfect here, and I admire the technical brilliance of being able to wring every bit of emotion out of each syllable. Garfunkel later claimed this verse took the most amount of takes, whereas the finale was the easiest. Wonderful support on the piano by Larry Knetchel, too. The performance makes me imagine that the person Garfunkel is singing to is so fragile, his almost hushed tones are all they can take.

He/they grow in strength in the second verse, adding meaning to Simon’s already powerful words, and the cymbal crashes from Hal Blaine suggest the message is getting through. Then the strings come in, courtesy of Jimmy Haskell, who had misheard the name of the song and labelled his arrangement Like a Pitcher of Troubled Water. Bass enters the fray, and Blaine gets on the drum kit. Its unclear whether that’s double-tracked singing from Garfunkel or Simon finally getting his voice heard, but I think it’s the former. Yes, the lyrics don’t match what came before, but the music picks up the slack, and then the epic rousing finale, in which Garfunkel gives it his all, leaving the darkness behind, with Blaine creating that unique drum sound by slapping the chains from his snow tyres on to his snare drum (used again on The Boxer). If this track hasn’t at least once made you want to cry when your defences are down (or just very pissed), are you even human?

The song was complete, and despite being over five minutes in length, label boss Clive Davis insisted it was too good to be anything but the first single from the album. He was totally correct, of course. It went to number 1 in the US in February, then the UK a month later, and like Wand’rin’ Star before it, it kept The Beatles’ swansong single, Let It Be, from number 1. Clearly, the mood of the time was for gospel-influenced, big message songs. The Beatles may be the greatest band of all time, but Bridge over Troubled Water was the better song here. It rightfully went on to be one of the biggest-selling singles of all time.

And the album named after the song was also huge. It was the bestseller of 1970, 71 and 72, and until Michael Jackson’s Thriller it was the biggest of all time. But Simon & Garfunkel had had enough of each other for the forseeable. In 1971, the same year their final LP won six awards at the Grammys, they split.

Simon would confess to Bridge over Troubled Water causing him to feel jealous – he resented sitting in the wings watching Garfunkel getting adulation for performing his song. You’d be forgiven for thinking he needed to get over himself. But it’s also proof that you can be an incredible songwriting talent and still be as petty as any other human, I suppose.

The duo got back together in 1972 for a benefit concert for Democrat hopeful George McGovern, but it was another three years before they spoke to each other when they visited a recording session by John Lennon and Harry Nilsson. They collaborated in the studio once more, and came up with a new single, My Little Town, which was a hit. For the rest of the 70s they would occasionally make rare TV and live appearances. Garfunkel would have a UK number 1 in April 1979 with the beautiful Bright Eyes from animated movie Watership Down (1978) – it was number 1 on the day I was born.

The 80s began with both Simon and Garfunkel’s solo careers in decline, until they were persuaded to perform at a free concert in Central Park, New York City in 1981. An incredible 500,000 attended the show – the largest ever at the time. They tried to capitalise on the renewed interest with a world tour in 1982, but old tensions rose and they barely spoke to each other throughout. Warner Bros. pushed for a tour extension and reunion album, but after early recording attempts, Simon opted for a new solo LP instead, with Garfunkel’s refusal to give up cannabis among the reasons given. Simon would go on to be very popular for the rest of the decade, particularly for his crossover world music album Graceland in 1986.

Simon & Garfunkel were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and managed to perform three songs together, despite Simon being pretty snide in his speech, and the duo refusing to speak to each other afterwards. A year later Simon did his own Central Park show, pointedly refusing an offer from his former partner to join him there. However in 1993 they were touring once more. Guess what? They fell out again for the rest of the decade.

In 2001 Simon was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a solo artist. He thanked Garfunkel, but ended up saying he wasn’t in a rush to make peace with him, either. Nice. A lifetime achievement Grammy for the old friends/sworn enemies in 2003 resulted in another halt to their Cold War. They toured the US and Europe for a year, and performed at a Hurricane Katrina benefit in 2005. Their final performance as Simon & Garfunkel took place at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2010, with the latter struggling with vocal cord paresis. Further dates were postponed indefinitely, and it would be four years before his voice was back to full strength.

Simon announced his retirement from touring in 2018. Does that mean we’ll never see them on stage ever again? Who knows. They’re both approaching 80, and it seems Simon in particular is unlikely to want to do so, but it would be nice to think they could end their days as friends once more. Hopefully it would be for genuine reasons, rather than the money.

If it doesn’t happen, best to take comfort in the fact the duo were able to produce some brilliant songs, had real alchemy together, and that despite the result it had on their relationship, Bridge over Troubled Water has helped so many people for 50 years.

Among the multitude of covers, it’s been number 1 twice since, for great causes – making up part of A Bridge over You, the 2015 Christmas number 1 by Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir, and in its own right in 2017, when stars including Robbie Williams, Rita Ora, Roger Daltrey and Stoemzy united under the banner Artists for Grenfell.

Written by: Paul Simon

Producer: Roy Halee, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel

Weeks at number 1: 3 (28 March-17 April)

Meanwhile…

April Fool’s Day: Everton won the Football League First Division title.

10 April: Paul McCartney announces that he has left The Beatles, marking the end of the Fab Four.

11 April: Chelsea and Leeds United drew 2–2 in the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium, making it the first to require a replay since 1912.

16 April: The controversial Dr. Ian Paisley entered the Parliament of Northern Ireland after winning the Bannside By-election.

197. Elvis Presley with The Jordanaires- Crying in the Chapel (1965)

elvis-presley.jpg

After a two-year absence, Elvis Presley was back at the top for the 15th time with his cover of Crying in the Chapel.

‘The King’ had been in the doldrums somewhat since (You’re the) Devil in Disguise musically. His movie career was still very active, but the quality had continued to slide. Although Viva Las Vegas performed well in the summer of 1964. Presley turned 30 in 1965. Had he chose to respond to the British Invasion with a brave, bold new musical direction that had captured the imagination of record buyers once more?

Not quite. Crying in the Chapel actually dated from 1960, making it the longest gap for a number 1 single between the song’s recording and its release up to this point. The song was a gospel number written by Artie Glenn for his son Darrell in 1953. It reached number six in the US and was covered many times, by artists including Ella Fitzgerald and The Orioles. Elvis had grown up with a love of gospel, and recorded his version with the intention of including it on his fifth album His Hand in Mine, which was entirely gospel-based. However, by the end of the one long marathon recording session for the album, the band were exhausted, and The Jordanaires were particularly unhappy with their performance, so it was left off the album.

Colonel Tom Parker liked it, but at the time he refused to let Presley release anything his company didn’t own the publishing rights to, and Valley Publishing refused to do a deal, so the song stayed in the vaults. By 1965 though, Hill and Range Publishing had bought them out, and so Crying in the Chapel was finally released, and record buyers forgave any lethargy they may have heard to give Presley his final UK number 1 of the 60s.

It’s a pleasant enough song, with the hushed, intimate performance reminiscent of Are You Lonesome Tonight?, but the track isn’t anywhere near up to that standard. The production marks it as belonging to a different era, and it sounds so old-fashioned compared to most of 1965’s other chart-toppers. But it fitted in with the family-friendly image Presley had held on to since leaving the army, and the older generation must have been glad to see the once raunchy, dangerous Elvis back with a nice song about God.

Following the success of Crying in the Chapel, Parker thought there might be something in the idea of turning Presley into a Christian entertainer. Fortunately by the time of the 1969 comeback special, Elvis finally had the courage to travel his own path. Sadly, not for nearly long enough, though.

After a week at the top, Crying in the Chapel was usurped from number 1 by The Hollies with I’m Alive. A week later though it enjoyed one more week in pole position, before I’m Alive knocked it down again.

Written by: Artie Glenn

Producers: Steve Sholes & Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-23 June, 1-7 July)

Births:

Fashion designer Sadie Frost – 19 June
Radio DJ Jo Whiley – 4 July

Deaths:

Cricketer Wally Hammond – 1 July 

Meanwhile…

17 June: Frank Marcus’ farce The Killing of Sister George premiered at the Duke of York’s Theatre, becoming one of the first mainstream British plays to feature lesbian characters. Beryl Reid was in the title role.

18 June: The government announced plans for the introduction of a blood alcohol limit for drivers. Amazing it had taken so long, really.

22 June: The 700th anniversary of Parliament was celebrated.

6 July: A tragic accident happened in Little Baldon, Oxfordshire when a Royal Air Force Handley Page Hastings crashed just after take-off from RAF Abingdon on a parachute training exercise. All 41 men on board were killed.