Norma Tenega was one of those rare, one-off, and hard to categorise artists. Not well known in the mainstream, but a once heard never forgotten sort of artist, beloved by both crate diggers, and those with an ear for the more esoteric.
However behind this seemingly cosy success story of a prodigious child of immigrant parents, there lies a far more interesting litany of rule breaking, rule bending and downright dissent.
Born in 1939, Norma was raised by her Panamanian mother and Filipino father near Long Beach, California. Her father was a bandmaster in the US Navy, so it was only natural that Norma would take classical piano lessons from the age of 9.
Something of a prodigy, by the age of 16 she had not only started to exhibit her paintings at the local library and arts centre, but was also to be found playing classical compositions by the likes of Beethoven and Bartok, at California piano recitals.
After travelling around Europe, Norma moved to NYC in the name of artistic pursuit, and by the early 1960s lived in pre-hipster Greenwich Village, where she got involved with the painters and the poets and the burgeoning folk scene. She wore glasses and waistcoats, played the guitar, smoked cigarettes, and toyed with musical, social and sexual stereotypes.
Her summers were spent working as a counsellor in Summer Camps, and like something from one of those films whose plot revolves around the sort of serendipity that couldn’t possibly happen in real life, it was there that she was spotted by record executive Herb Bernstein.
Her first single “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog”, allegedly inspired by her living in an apartment building that didn’t allow dogs, so instead she got a cat…and named it Dog and took it for walks, and then wrote a song about it.
Journalist Stephen Deusner, explained this rather better in a recent article for Uncut.co.uk
“She wasn’t marching in the streets or bombing army recruitment centres or occupying the dean’s office at Berkeley. Instead, hers was a more personal act of dissent, playful and almost surrealist: Magritte by way of Haight-Ashbury. Flaunting her lease inspired a short and nonchalantly innovative tune that became her biggest hit, melding folk ponderings, pop melodies, girl-group vocals, a “Love Me Do” harmonica theme, and a follow-the-bouncing-ball guitar lick”.
Often filed under “quirky”, some would say the song would not have sounded out of place on Sesame Street, and Norma wins extra bonus points from us for playing it on a Gibson SG without a plectrum (more rule breaking). The single peaked at number 22 on both sides of the Atlantic and prompted by TV appearances, Norma found herself on tour with chart contemporaries Gene Pitney and Bobby Goldsboro. Far from being a three-chord, easy-going one hit wonder, there to swing her hair and wear a nice frock, as was probably expected, Norma instead cut her hair and hired experienced session musicians for her backing band, as they were the only ones capable of playing her more idiosyncratic and highly complex songs. For example the song “No Stranger Am I” just happens to be in 5/4 time. Pop music normally comes in 4/4 time, 5/4 is not only much more tricky, it’s another shady rule break.
In 1967 Norma swung into swingingest London to appear on Britain’s top pop show “Ready Steady Go” where she ran into fellow performer Dusty Springfield. The story goes that the pair were so taken with each other that once Norma had returned to the States, Dusty allegedly ran up one of the biggest all time monster phone bills ever, prompting Norma to return to the UK, and straight into Dusty’s Kensington home.
The “L” word was barely mentioned back then, and if it was it was probably only whispered. No matter, Dusty and her new “friend” quietly set up home, and their relationship was kept from the press because in the late 1960s, it would have been seen as a total “career killer”. Norma contributed guitar to Springfield’s 1967 LP “Where am I Going?”, and Springfield in turn recorded some of Norma’s songs including “No Stranger Am I” which appeared on the B-Side of Dusty’s top ten hit “I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten”, released in 1968.
Like her contemporary Laura Nyro (also a Herb Bernstein artist), Norma’s songs were hard to categorise. Not as obviously folksy as artists like Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, but also not quite pop, and of course, there was the best not to mention “L” thing. The pop industry loves categories, but it was hard to find one for women who could write and perform their own complex pieces while charting a course outside of pop’s designated and somewhat narrow swim lanes.
By the 1970s the tide was starting to turn, with songwriters like Carole King, and Carol Bayer Sager coming to the fore, who in turn paved the way for the next generation of female ingenues like Kate of Bush, Fiona of Apple and even Bjork.
For an artist like Norma, whose first record was released in 1966, many of her early tracks still sound vibrant and contemporary, and have an eerie timeless quality to them.
Her song “You’re Dead” is currently used as the theme tune of the 2019 TV series “What We Do In The Shadows”, and a version of “Walking My Cat named Dog” was recorded by They Might Be Giants and appears on their children’s album “Why?”
Still living in California, and at 80 years of age, Norma continued to make art including ceramics and music. She had collaborated with a range of other artists releasing albums with the Latin Lizards with Robert Grajeda, Baboonz with guitarist Tom Skelly and bassist Mario Verlangieri, and sound sculptor Brian Ransom. Still breaking all the rules, still unconventional, still skipping genres and still pleasing herself. We’d have loved to hear what she may have made of Punk Rock. Norma we absolutely salute you, in the most unconventially conventional way we know how.
Norma Tenega – Jan 30 1939 – Dec 29 2019.
You can visit Norma’s website HERE