Norman Greenbaum was kind enough to tell us about this song. He set out to write a religious rock song, and he is Jewish. Instead of using a Jewish word for God, he used "Jesus" because he thought it would be more marketable. It took months for Greenbaum to finish the music, but the lyrics came really quickly. Interesting fact we also learned about Norman: he used to run a goat farm.
The original inspiration for this was a song about a preacher by Country singer Porter Waggoner. Greenbaum was also influenced by folk revival music and traditional southern blues.
Greenbaum began his musical career while a student at Boston University, playing area coffeehouses before relocating to the West Coast during the mid-'60s and forming Dr. West's Medicine Show and Jugband. The now-defunct band had one hit, "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago," and broke up in 1968. The group was characterized as a psychedelic jug band - "jugs" like Southern moonshiners used were blown to make sound. The band also used a washboard bass. (thanks, Stevie - louisville, KY)
Greenbaum told Mojo magazine September 2011 the song is "timeless." "Most everyone else sees it that way," he said. "It appeals to one's inner self and the need for redemption, plus, heck, who wants to go to hell?"
This has been used in many TV shows and films, including Contact and Wayne's World II. It was also used in a popular American Express commercial. (thanks, Amy - Chicago, IL)
In the movie Apollo 13, the astronauts play this as the background music and theme song for their TV appearances. Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell has since stated that the real theme song was "Aquarius," as Aquarius was the name of the Lunar Landing Module that ultimately served as the crew's "lifeboat" when the mission went awry. (thanks, justin - Canton, IL)
In the UK, this song has reached #1 three times by three different acts. The first was Greenbaum's version in 1970, then in 1986 Doctor And The Medics took it to #1, and finally in 2003 for Gareth Gates And The Kumars.
One hit wonders Doctor & The Medics lead singer Clive Jackson admitted in 1000 UK #1 Hits
by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, "We love Norman and 'Spirit In The Sky' although we thought it was a bit hippy dippy, so we just cranked it up a bit. We knew all the time that nothing much was gonna happen after 'Spirit In The Sky' so we just enjoyed it for what it was at the time."
Clive Jackson also says in One Hit Wonders
, by Chris Welch and Duncan Soar, "I had a conversation on the radio with Norman Greenbaum. He had been managing a hamburger bar and got the sack because of all these phone calls asking how he felt about the song being a hit again. His bosses said, 'If you're such a big star, you don't need to be working here.' We had a lot of fun and partied all around the world. After our second LP, we broke up. Until Gareth Gates had a hit with Spirit, everyone said it was the only record to have been number one by two one-hit wonders, ourselves and Greenbaum."
The 2003 version was a benefit record for the UK Comic Relief charity, which involves people doing unusual things like bathing in tubs of baked beans to raise money for disadvantaged people in the UK and in Africa. The Kumars are a fictional British-Asian comedy family who have their own chatshow in the UK. While Gates sings the song they interrupt occasionally, offering soundbites such as "What's he talking about? Is he talking about heaven? I thought we got reincarnated!" At the end, someone asks what they think of the song, and one replies; "Is Will Young available?" This is a reference to the original UK show Pop Idol, as Gareth Gates was the runner-up in the final and Will Young was the winner.
The 2003 version played on the irony of having a Christian-themed song being sung by an Hindu family by adding sitars and Asian production to the song, and having a Hollywood theme for the video. Meera Syal, who plays Granny Shushil Ummi Kumar, also did uncredited backing vocals for the song. (thanks, Adam - Dewsbury, England, for above 2)
Greenbaum (from Rolling Stone magazine): "I'm just some Jewish musician who really dug Gospel music. I decided there was a larger Jesus Gospel market out there than a Jehovah one."
This was also recorded by DC Talk, the Christian rock group fronted by Toby McKeehan. He took a liberty in the lyrics by changing one line (and this is paraphrasing him) to: "We are all sinners; we all sin." (thanks, Jeff - Scottsdale, AZ)
The Anaheim Angels baseball team plays this when their lineup is introduced. (thanks, Julian - Anaheim, CA)
Greenbaum says that when they mixed this song, they optimized it for car stereo systems, which didn't have a lot of dynamic range. Many years later when songs were often listened to on tiny computer speakers, this came in handy, as you didn't need a subwoofer to appreciate the song.
Female backup singers on this track were provided by the Stovall Sisters, who were a Gospel trio from Indiana. Philip Bailey was a percussionist for the trio before he joined Earth, Wind & Fire.