American singer-songwriter

Born: January 30, 1939

Died: December 29, 2019

NORMA Tanega, who has died aged 80, was an American singer, songwriter and visual artist who was known primarily for her minor hit Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog, which reached number 22 in the charts in both the US and the UK in 1966. A song which fused a sense of whimsical novelty and a breezy harmonica line to the folksy flower-power style of the time, it was – much like the rest of Tanega’s material – a pleasing crate-digging discovery for future fans and music enthusiasts.

Despite its initial modest success, Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog was well-remembered by both contemporaries of Tanega and alternative artists of the future; it was covered over the decades by Barry McGuire (as the follow-up to his huge 1965 hit, Eve of Destruction), Dr Hook, Yo La Tengo, They Might Be Giants and the jazz artists Jazz Crusaders and Art Blakey.

Despite the political concerns of the time and Tanega’s own opposition to the war in Vietnam, however, the song had the most innocent of beginnings; it was inspired by the cat she bought when the landlord of her New York apartment told her she wasn’t allowed to keep a dog. Instead, Tanega named the cat Dog.

Other covers of Tanega’s songs include San Francisco garage rockers Thee Oh Sees’ take on What Are We Craving? in 2011, although in the final few years of her life her song You’re Dead created its own unexpected pop-cultural momentum when it was used over the opening credits of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s cult 2014 vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows and the follow-up television series in 2019.

The song is instantly recognisable, a raw, ragged blues track, with Tanega’s huskily genderless voice intoning “don’t sing if you want to live long / they have no use for your song / you’re dead, you’re dead, you’re dead and out of this world.” Although unintended by Tanega, the song has become the perfect soundtrack to What We Do in the Shadow's 'black comedy of undeath'. While fulfilling UK promotional duties for Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog and the accompanying debut album of the same name, Tanega performed on the music show Ready Steady Go!, which was where she met the British singer Dusty Springfield. The pair fell in love and Tanega moved to the UK, living with Springfield in Kensington in London, and composing some songs for her. Although none were hits, fans of Springfield will recognise album tracks and B-sides including No Stranger Am I, The Colour of Your Eyes, Earthbound Gypsy, Midnight Sounds and the Anglicised Gilberto Gil cover Morning.

Tanega also wrote and played guitar uncredited for Springfield, including musical contributions to the 1967 album Where Am I Going?, and while she was in England she wrote for Love’s Philosophy, the 1969 album by Springfield’s brother Tom, and the Move singer Carl Wayne’s self-titled 1972 solo album. Her own second record I Don’t Think It Will Hurt if You Smile was well-reviewed but not commercially successful upon its 1971 release, and soon afterwards she returned to the US following her split from Springfield.

Norma Cecilia Tanega was born in Vallejo, California, in 1939 to Otilda and Tomas, a Panamanian and Filipino, respectively. Her father was a bandmaster in the US Navy, and Tanega began her own classical music training at the age of nine. By the time she attended the Californian woman’s art institution Scripps College, she was an enthusiastic painter, poet and classical musician. Moving to New York’s bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village, she was working as a camp counsellor in the Catskill Mountains when she met record producer Herb Bernstein. Together with songwriter and label boss Bob Crewe, they gave Tanega her big break.

After her return to America in the early 1970s, Tanega settled once again in California with an art professor named Diane, and taught music and English as a second language, as well as returning to making and exhibiting paintings, and various low-key music projects. She is survived by a niece, a nephew and a cousin.