Norma Tanega, who sang about a cat named Dog, dies at 80

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Norma Tanega, who sang about a cat named Dog, dies at 80
The song reached No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and quickly assumed a life of its own.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- In 1966, when Norma Tanega released her first single, rock fans were becoming used to unusual lyrics. But as it turned out, that song, “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog,” wasn’t as quirky as the title suggested: The song was inspired by her cat, whose name was indeed Dog.

“I had always wanted a dog, but because of my living situation, I could only have a cat,” she said on her website. “I named my cat Dog and wrote a song about my dilemma.”

She turned that situation into a lilting song about freedom, “perpetual dreamin’” and “walkin’ high against the fog” around town with Dog (whom in real life she really did walk).

Accompanying herself on guitar and also playing harmonica, she sang, in a low voice: “Dog is a good old cat/People what you think of that?/That’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m at.”

The song reached No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and quickly assumed a life of its own, covered by various artists, including Barry McGuire, whose apocalyptic “Eve of Destruction” had reached No. 1 a year earlier, as well as jazz artists like drummer Art Blakey and the Jazz Crusaders. Decades later, versions of the song were recorded by Yo La Tengo and They Might Be Giants.

But she would never have another hit.

Tanega died on Dec. 29 at her home in Claremont, California, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. She was 80. Her lawyer, Alfred Shine, said the cause was colon cancer.

Soon after the release of her hit song, Tanega was part of a nationwide tour with Gene Pitney, Chad & Jeremy and many other artists. Later in 1966 she performed in England, where she met Dusty Springfield, the British pop star.

The meeting led Tanega to write or co-write songs for Springfield, including “No Stranger Am I,” “The Colour of Your Eyes” and “Earthbound Gypsy.” They also had a romantic relationship for several years, during which Tanega wrote a song called “Dusty Springfield” with Jim Council and jazz pianist and vocalist Blossom Dearie, who sang it on her 1970 album, “That’s Just the Way I Want to Be.”

“Dusty Springfield, that’s a pretty name,” the song starts. “It even sounds like a game/In a green field, hobby horses play the dusty game/When it’s May.”

Recalling her chemistry with Springfield in an interview with the Southern California newspaper The Daily Bulletin in 2019, Tanega closed her eyes and said, “She heard me.”

While in England, Tanega recorded her second — and last — solo album, “I Don’t Think It Will Hurt If You Smile” (1971). When her relationship with Springfield ended, she returned to the United States, settling in Claremont.

Norma Cecilia Tanega was born on Nov. 30, 1939, in Vallejo, California, and grew up in Long Beach. Her father, Tomas, was a Navy bandmaster and musician. Her mother, Otilda (Ramirez) Tanega, was a homemaker.

As a teenager, Norma painted, and gave classical piano recitals and taught herself the guitar. After graduating from Scripps College in Claremont and earning a master’s in fine arts from Claremont Graduate School, she moved to Manhattan to join the folk music scene.

A job singing in a summer camp in the Catskills brought Tanega to the attention of a producer, Herb Bernstein, and to Bob Crewe, the songwriter and producer behind many of the Four Seasons’ hits, who signed her to his New Voice record label in 1965. “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” came out early the next year.

During a stopover on her nationwide tour, Tanega told The Detroit Free Press that she wasn’t sure what genre to put herself in.

“The folkies don’t like me and the rock ’n’ rollies don’t like me,” she said. She nonetheless enjoyed performing, she said: “I just want to sing for people. You might say it’s mass love.”

After her second album and her return to Claremont, she began a long teaching career. She was an adjunct professor of art at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and taught music, art and English as a second language in Claremont public schools.

She also focused on her art, which culminated in an exhibition of her landscapes and abstract paintings last year at Claremont Heritage, a historic preservation center. In comments published for the show, David Shearer, the executive director of the center and the curator of the exhibition, compared some of her work to that of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Robert Rauschenberg.

She never gave up music. Over the years, she played earthenware instruments in the Brian Ransom Ceramic Art Ensemble and performed and recorded with several bands, including Hybrid Vigor, the Latin Lizards and Baboonz.

No immediate family members survive.

Nearly 50 years after the debut of Tanega’s first album, its opening track, “You’re Dead,” was used as the theme song for “What We Do in the Shadows” (2015), an acclaimed mockumentary by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi about a group of vampires living in present-day New Zealand. (The movie spawned a TV series on the FX network that is heading into its second season.)

“Don’t sing if you want to live long,” she sang. “They have no use for your song./You’re dead, you’re dead, you’re dead/You’re dead and outta this world.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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