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Norma Cecilia Tanega (born January 30, 1939) is an American folk and pop singer-songwriter, painter, and experimental musician. In the 1960s she had a hit with the single "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog" and wrote songs for Dusty Springfield and other prominent musicians. In recent decades Tanega has worked mostly as a percussionist, playing various styles of music in the bands Baboonz, hybridVigor and Ceramic Ensemble.
Norma Tanega was born in Vallejo, California, near San Francisco, and moved to Long Beach at the age of two. Her mother, Otilda Tanega, was Panamanian, and her father, Tomas Tanega, was Filipino and worked as a bandmaster for 30 years in the United States Navy aboard the USS Hornet before moving on to lead her own band. Norma's older brother Rudy went into the United States Air Force.
Tanega began classical piano lessons at age nine. She entered Long Beach Polytechnic High School in 1952 and in her senior year directed the school's art gallery. By age 16 she was exhibiting her paintings at both Long Beach's Public Library and its Municipal Art Center, playing Beethoven and Bartók at piano recitals, and writing poetry. At age 17 she entered Scripps College on a scholarship and continued her studies at Claremont Graduate School, achieving an MFA in 1962.
Tanega spent a summer backpacking around Europe and moved to New York City to pursue her artistic career. Living in Greenwich Village she became involved in the folk music scene and political activism, including early opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War.
Tanega worked for a short time at a mental hospital, where she sang and played songs for patients. She spent her summers working as a camp counselor upstate in the Catskill Mountains. One summer Brooklyn-based record producer Herb Bernstein happened to be visiting the camp and saw Tanega performing some of her songs. Impressed by what he saw, Bernstein took her to meet Four Seasons songwriter Bob Crewe and in 1966 the two men produced a number of recordings that comprised Tanega's first album and singles to be released on Crewe's New Voice Records label.
Her first single, "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog", went on to be an international hit, peaking at number 22 on both the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and the UK Singles Charts, and entered Canada's top 10. Tanega's impetus for the song came from living in a New York City apartment building that didn't allow dogs, so she kept a cat instead, named the cat "dog" and took the cat out for walks. The single's success landed her appearances on American Bandstand and Where the Action Is, and also a slot as the only woman on a North American tour with Gene Pitney, Bobby Goldsboro, Chad and Jeremy and The McCoys. On that tour Tanega was initially backed up by members of The Outsiders, who ended up not being able to follow Tanega's more idiosyncratic music and she had to take on session players to accompany her onstage. While some of her songs riffed off of traditional tunes like "Hey Girl", derived from Lead Belly's take on "In the Pines", many of her songs diverged from the structure of typical pop and folk music, such as her song "No Stranger Am I", set to a 5/4 time signature.
With Tanega's next three singles having less commercial success than "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog", her debut album was named for its big hit and its popularity spawned several cover versions by contemporary artists. A month after Tanega's single entered the charts, Barry McGuire cut a version on the heels of his number one hit "Eve of Destruction". The T-Bones did an instrumental take on it later that year, and both the Jazz Crusaders and Art Blakey released jazz treatments of the song in 1967. International versions adapted the song into other languages. Madagascar yé-yé group Les Surfs translated it as "Mon Chat Qui S'Appelle Médor" for the French-speaking and African markets, Belgium's Lize Marke released it as "Wanneer Komt Het Geluk Voor Mij" ("When Comes This Happiness For Me") in Dutch, and Jytte Elga Olga interpreted it as "Min Kat – Herr Hund" ("My Cat, Mister Dog") on a Danish 45.
In 1967 Tanega traveled to England to promote her music. Her tour included a performance on the ITV program Ready, Steady, Go! where she met British pop singer Dusty Springfield. After Tanega returned to the U.S. Springfield made many transatlantic calls to talk to her regularly, and Springfield accrued a large phone bill. On a visit to New York, Springfield entered a romantic relationship with Tanega, and the two went back to England and lived together for five years.
The couple took up residence in London's Kensington district where Tanega continued to paint and play music. She contributed guitar tracks to Springfield's 1967 album Where Am I Going? and Springfield recorded many of Tanega's songs. These included "No Stranger Am I", the 5/4 number that originally appeared on Tanega's first album; "The Colour of Your Eyes", which Tanega wrote for Springfield in Venice, California; "Earthbound Gypsy" and "Midnight Sounds", both co-written in New York with Tanega's high school friend Dan White; and "Come for a Dream", co-written with bossa nova musician Antônio Carlos Jobim. Tanega also penned the English language lyrics for Springfield's version of "Morning", a cover of the song "Bom Dia" by Gilberto Gil and Nana Caymmi. In 1970 Tanega teamed up with jazz pianist Blossom Dearie to write a song about Springfield for Dearie's album That's Just the Way I Want to Be.
Most of Tanega's songs appeared as non-album B-sides to Springfield's singles. Some, like the outtake "Go My Love", appeared only on collections released years after their recording. Tanega also went uncredited for many of her collaborations with Springfield, and by 1970 their relationship was deteriorating. Tanega's time in the U.K. secured her a contract with British division of RCA Records for whom she recorded the album I Don't Think It Will Hurt If You Smile in 1971 with producer/keyboardist Mike Moran and Don Paul of British rock group The Viscounts. When Tanega ended up returning to the U.S. before the album's promotion, it wasn't met with the chart success of her earlier work. Dusty Springfield biographer Annie J. Randall said of the record, "I hear many references to Norma's relationship with Dusty on this album. It stands to reason that Dusty would be the object of affection in the love songs."
In 1972 Tanega moved back to Claremont, California and took jobs teaching both music and English as a second language. She returned to painting and exhibiting her artwork. with frequent support from the Claremont Museum of Art. and sometimes combined with her own musical performances. Musically she switched from playing guitar to percussion and her style evolved from folk-rock singer-songwriting to more instrumental and experimental music. In the 1980s she was a member of Scripps ceramics professor Brian Ransom's Ceramic Ensemble, a group that played Ransom's handmade earthenware instruments. Over the years Ceramic Ensemble played at universities, folk festivals, and art museums.
In the 1990s Tanega founded the group hybridVigor, starting as a duo with Mike Henderson for their first album, then expanding to a trio with the addition of Rebecca Jamm for their second album. In 1998 Tanega formed the Latin Lizards with Robert Grajeda, and the duo released the album Dangerous in 2003.
Her next band was called Baboonz with guitarist Tom Skelly and bassist Mario Verlangieri. The trio released a selt-titled CD in 2008, the album HA! In 2009, and a third called 8 Songs Ate Brains in 2010. Other recording projects soon followed, including the album Push with John Zeretzke, Twin Journey with Steve Rushingwind Ruiz, and a return collaboration with Ceramic Ensemble sound sculptor Brian Ransom for their album Internal Medicine.Wide ThumbClearartFanartBanner User Comments