Don't sing if you want to live long, they have no use for your song

It's pretty unlikely you've ever heard of Norma Tanega.  

She grew up a Navy brat, born in Vallejo in 1939 and raised in Long Beach, to a Panamanian mother and a Filipino dad who was a bandmaster in the Navy.  Growing up, she learned to paint and sculpt and play piano and guitar.  She got her MFA from Claremont in 1962, and then went off to New York.  She lived in Greenwich Village and played folk music there.  She had a summer job as a camp counselor in the Catskills, where she entertained the kids by singing her songs from there.  That's what she was doing when a parent who was a music producer from Brooklyn discovered her.

And that is how, in 1966, Norma Tanega recorded the single that changed her life:  "Walkin' A Cat Named Dog." 

It was a minor hit, but a hit nonetheless.  She went on tour with people whose names will only be meaningful to those of a certain age:  Gene Pitney, Bobby Goldsboro, Chad and Jeremy.  Barry McGuire recorded a cover of her song.  Art Blakey (literally the first person I wrote a #music2019 post about) recorded a version.

When the single hit #22 in England, she flew there to appear on Ready, Steady, Go!  In the studio, she met the vastly more famous Dusty Springfield.  Soon the two were living together in Springfield's Kensington flat, where Tenega painted, played the guitar, and wrote songs.  She wrote a lot of songs for Springfield, most of them appearing as B-sides on Springfield's singles.  She wrote a song with Antônio Carlos Jobim, and wrote a song for Blossom Dearie.

Five years of being in a secret relationship with one of the most famous women in England wore thin.  Tanega returned to the US.  She dropped out of music, mostly, and focused on painting and sculpting.  She was taught art at Cal Poly in the 90s.  She had exhibitions at her alma mater.  She worked with other musicians over the years, mostly on experimental stuff, like an album recorded on ceramic instruments.  But mostly her career after 1971 focused on visual arts.

Her music from the 1960s, obscure though it was, never disappeared completely.  David Bowie spoke of her.  Dr. Hook, Yo La Tengo, and They Might Be Giants have all recorded covers of "Walkin' a Cat Named Dog."  And a film editor in Wellington, New Zealand named Tom Eagles never forgot another one of Tanega's songs.  

When he started working with Jermaine Clement and Taika Watiti on a mock-documentary about vampires, he said to them, you have to hear this.

This is how music survives.  The right person remembers it, and brings it to the right audience at the right time.  A whole lot of people's first exposure to Dusty Springfield was when "Son of a Preacher Man" appeared in Pulp Fiction.  If you recognize this song when you hear it, it's almost certainly because you saw What We Do In The Shadows.  This video has over two million views.

It's a great little song.  Simple, strange, with strikingly good guitar work, and a message for the ages.  It makes me wonder what we missed because a relationship went bad and she walked away.


  1. Wonderful post about Norma Tanega. You're Dead is deceptive--it sounds simple but it's difficult to get a handle on. A group of folks I play music with has been trying to work up a credible arrangement for ages and we still don't have it.


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