NORMA TANEGA

Walkin' My Cat Named Dog

An entire career was activated by one inconvenience, though an important one to animal lovers! Norma Tanega went apartment hunting in New York in 1965, but the best place she could find on her budget had one "pet" peeve: no dogs allowed, grrr. So she got a cat, named the cat Dog, bought a leash and began strolling around Manhattan ('...walkin' high against the fog') with Dog, which provided the inspiration for the song that became her career breakthrough.

Norma's father, a U.S. Navy officer and bandleader of Filipino descent, met her mother, a native of Panama, while stationed there. They lived in Southern California in the 1950s during their daughter's teenage years; she studied piano and guitar and attended college in Claremont. After graduating with a master's degree in fine arts, she traveled around the U.S. and hitchhiked through Europe, deciding at age 25 to move to New York City to check out the Greenwich Village folk scene. Over the course of working several odd jobs, she became a counselor at a summer camp in the Catskill Mountains, singing her songs for campers and staff. Word got out about her talents and Brooklyn-based record producer Herb Bernstein took an interest, introducing her to Bob Crewe, whose track record was quite formidable (he'd produced hits for The 4 Seasons, Diane Renay and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and had recently started his DynoVoice and New Voice record labels).

In late 1965, Bernstein produced "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog," Norma's unusual lyrics ('Happy, sad and crazy wonder...chokin' up my mind with perpetual dreamin'') lyrically in line with the "folkie" trend towards abstract messages ripe for interpretation. The New Voice single went as high as number 22 in April '66 and matched that feat in the U.K. the following month. An album, same title as the single (with a cover photo of Norma playing her guitar), included a no-punches-pulled opener, "You're Dead," about making the most of life ('You'll never get a second chance...plan all your moves in advance') and, perhaps, something much darker ('When you smile and it tears your face...it's time for the inhuman race'). Second single "A Street That Rhymes at 6 A.M." ('...all I want is a new skyline') didn't skimp on perplexing lyrics ('Live and die in 4/4 time'...must I?) and made a very brief chart appearance.

During April and May she was the only female act on a tour with Gene Pitney headlining a strong bill: Chad and Jeremy, Len Barry, The McCoys, Bobby Goldsboro, B.J. Thomas and The Outsiders, the latter group assigned the task of backing her, the differences in their styles leading to complications. As a singer niched somewhere between rock and folk, and being a woman in an otherwise all-male environment, she felt a bit out of place. Two more singles, summer release "Bread" (the paper and edible kind) and a spring 1967 effort, "Run, on the Run" (a bigger production than her usual guitar-and-vocal numbers), failed to catch on and her association with Crewe and New Voice ended. By that time her private life had entered a stimulating new phase.

Norma Tanega

Shortly after the tour, in June '66, she went to England for some promotional bookings, including a guest shot on the trendy and enormously popular TV series Ready Steady Go!, where she made the acquaintance of her future lover, Dusty Springfield, whose sexual preference was kept hush-hush from the general public over concerns of a career backlash. Immediately attracted to her, but living on separate continents, they stayed in touch by phone, an expensive habit in those days. A visit Dusty made to N.Y. soon afterwards confirmed their feelings; Norma packed her clothes, grabbed Dog and her guitar and moved to London, where the couple lived for more than four years. Ms. Tanega composed several songs for Tom Springfield and his superstar sis as well, some of them appearing on U.K. B sides ("The Colour of Your Eyes," "Earthbound Gypsy" and a previously-recorded song from Norma's album, "No Stranger Am I").

They were very happy in the early going; Norma's pet name for Dusty was "Cat" (not so much because of her hit song but because Dusty was obsessed with feline pets, sometimes letting three or four take over her home at the same time). Collaborating with American teacher-songwriter Jim Council, Norma wrote a song of admiration titled, simply, "Dusty Springfield" (New Yorker Blossom Dearie recorded the song in 1970). But the romance grew complicated with outbursts and confrontations, occasionally having to do with Dusty's tendency to flirt (and sometimes take it further) with women she met. The relationship had ended by 1971, though they remained close friends until Dusty's death in 1999.

Norma signed with the U.K. branch of RCA Records. Her only other album, I Don't Think it Will Hurt if You Smile (with a cover photo of Norma hugging her guitar), came a half-decade after the first, featuring 16 self-penned songs (including a few instrumentals) consistent with her earlier musical and lyrical style including the single "Nothing Much is Happening Today." She didn't stick around to promote the record, though, opting to return to the U.S. shortly after her affair of the heart had been burst. She settled in the L.A. area and switched careers, teaching at California State Polytechnic University and later in the Claremont public school district. She also indugled another artistic endeavor: oil painting. Her music career resumed sometime in the 1990s, though in a totally different direction. Various projects included hybridVigor with guitarist Mike Henderson, a stint with Mexican folk band The Latin Lizards and as part of experimental trio Baboonz. Norma, for the most part, served as percussionist on these acts' various albums, pounding out rhythms on drums, congas, cans and anything else deemed appropriate.

Then out of the abyss of 2014, a vampire comedy film produced in New Zealand, What We Do in the Shadows, used the 48-year-old "You're Dead" as its theme song, applying a macabre '...out of this world' interpretation to Walkin' My Cat Named Dog's side one, track one. The movie continued as a long-running TV series and two subsequent generations of music fans discovered her music; vinyl reissues of the debut LP were suddenly a high-demand item. Norma Tanega had scored a second hit!

- Michael Jack Kirby


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Walkin' My Cat Named Dog