by Ben McLane, Esq.
The year, 1966. The song, "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog". It has echoed through the decades as a closet classic. A song once heard, it cannot be forgotten. Written and performed by Norma Tanega, "Walkin'" was in a class by itself, and still is. Comprised of a haunting vocal, lyrical twists and a production spiced with simplified wall of sound elements, it caught the public's fancy. Although long since relegated to the "whatever happened to" category, over the years Tanega has contributed much more to music than would appear on the surface. In fact, she has "never stopped making music, only my sound has changed."
A singer, songwriter, and classically trained multi-instrumentalist, Tanega was born on January 30, 1939 in Vallejo, California, near San Francisco. Her father was a bandmaster in the United States Navy and an accomplished musician. Growing up, "it was only natural for me to become a musician as well." At an early age, the family moved to Long Beach, California, where she grew up. Quite talented artistically, she obtained an art scholarship to Scripps College For Women in Claremont, California, graduating in 1960. Thereafter, in 1962, she obtained a Masters Degree in Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate School.
After leaving the Claremont Graduate School, "I moved to New York City with all of my worldly possessions, including the guitar that appears on the cover of my two albums." As a musician and an artist, this was the next logical step in her life. "At that time, the center of the art world was New York City." Before obtaining a record contract, Tanega spent one summer sightseeing and hitchhiking around Europe. She also briefly worked at a New York City mental hospital where she played and sang for patients.
Tanega's big break came as a result of her job singing at a summer camp in the Catskills Mountains in New York. "One of the other counselors at the camp was teaching at a high school in Brooklyn, New York. Another of the instructors at that high school happened to be a part-time record producer with connections to Bob Crewe, by the name of Herb Bernstein." (Bernstein later arranged and produced the Happenings and Laura Nyro). It was suggested that Tanega play Bernstein some of her material. He liked what he heard, and took Tanega to Crewe, who also was impressed. At that time, along with writing for and producing the Four Seasons (among others), Crewe was running his own boutique labels, Dyna Voice and New Voice. Crewe signed Tanega to New Voice and to his publishing company, Saturday Music. The result was the album Walkin' My Cat Named Dog, produced by Bernstein, which contained the hit "Walkin'". The meaning behind the lyrics to "Walkin'" is as follows: "I had always wanted a dog, but because of my living situation I could only have a cat; I named my cat dog and wrote a song about my dilemma." Apparently, others could relate, because "Walkin'" zoomed to #22 on the Billboard charts.
On the strength of her hit, Tanega landed a slot on the 1966 Gene Pitney Tour. Along with Tanega and Pitney, the tour included such heavyweights as the McCoys, Bobby Goldsboro and Chad & Jeremy. "Initially, the tour was a disaster because the musicians sent out to back me up (members of the Outsiders) could not read my music charts. Hence, I had to pay for session players to come and play behind me." As a further tour anecdote, Tanega describes how "at one show in Canada, there was only a dressing room for the guys and I had to change in a stable!" Tanega was the only girl on that tour. Luckily, "the McCoys and their manager really took me under their wing and cared for me."
Three follow-up singles were released on New Voice, but fared poorly. ("They sound terrible when I listen to them today.") Since there were no follow-up hits, the relationship with New Voice ended there. However, over the years Tanega has kept in contact with Bob Crewe. "I still speak to him occasionally. He is no longer in the music business, but instead is a full- time painter, and he was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. In fact, he told me that he really liked a recent instrumental CD I released; that he plays it all the time in his car."
Interestingly, "Walkin'" became a huge hit in England. In order to capitalize on the success abroad, Tanega moved to London in 1967 and entered a new era in her career. While In London, she became recognized quickly as a songwriter, and made many important contacts. "Dusty Springfield and her family were some of my closest friends while in England." Through the Springfield connection, Tanega wrote songs with Tom Springfield (who incidentally wrote many of the Seeker's hits) and for Dusty herself. These songs can be found on Tom Springfield's Love's Philosophy album on Decca from 1969 (UK only) and as the B sides of several Dusty Springfield singles on Phillips (UK only) from 1968 through 1970 (e.g., "I Close My Eyes"/"No Stranger Am I", "Earthbound Gypsy"/Am I the Same Girl", The Color of Your Eyes"/"I Will Come To You"). Additionally, her work appears on former Move singer Carl Wayne's 1972 RCA album (UK only) titled Carl Wayne.
Tanega's efforts in London resulted in a record contract with RCA. The output was the 1971 album titled I Don't Think It Will Hurt If You Smile. This album was produced by Don Paul. One of the session players was well known British musician Mike Moran, who later worked with such great British rock luminaries as Colin Blunstone, Mick Fleetwood, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover and Chris Rea. This album was only released in the UK, and although "it received excellent reviews," it was not a hit. "Unfortunately, I could not promote the album because I had to move back to the United States for family reasons."
Upon moving back to the states, Tanega took up residence in her old college town of Claremont, California, and began teaching music, which she still does today. Along with her other passion for painting, she has continued to create music. However, for lack of a better term, her works are now more aptly called instrumental "experimental music", created by playing various and intricate percussion instruments to produce different moods and sensations. Tanega's new independent releases can be ordered c/o 4111 Mt. Baldy Rd., Claremont, CA 91711.
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