Norma Tanega was born in 1939 in Vallejo, California to a Panamanian mother and Filipino father, but soon moved to Southern California where she grew up in Long Beach. Norma’s father served as a Chief petty officer (CPO) and bandmaster in the U.S. Navy, and was an accomplished musician. As a young woman, Norma became interested in music and art, and would go on to earn a B.A. from Scripps College in 1960 and a Master's Degree in Fine Arts from the Claremont Graduate School (now University) in 1962. While at Scripps College, Norma became heavily influenced by the music of Joan Baez, inspiring her to pursue her own music career.
Following graduation, Norma moved to New York City where she often played local hootenanny shows, even meeting Bob Dylan who taught her the correct way to play his songs. In 1966, Norma signed with New Voice Records and her debut single, “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog”, produced by Bob Crewe, reached #22 on the U.S. Billboard charts. The song was a #1 hit in England and Norma moved to London for the next five years where she wrote songs for singer, Dusty Springfield. After returning to the U.S. in 1971, Tanega lectured as an adjunct professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona for nearly 20 years and taught ESL at Claremont Adult School.
Throughout her later years, Norma continued to paint and record music at her home studio in Padua Hills where she lived since the early 1980’s. Tucked under the shoulder of Mt. Baldy, the unique stone and cement house, built by ceramist Lindley Mixon, was designed by architect Foster Rhodes Jackson, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Over her musical career, Norma wrote, recorded, and produced 15 albums of original music, including collaborations with John Zeretsky, Brian Ransom’s Ceramic Ensemble, Hybrid Vigor with Rebecca Hamm and Mike Henderson, Baboonz with Tom Skelly and Mario Verlangieri, and Native American flutist, Steve Rushingwind.
Over the years, Norma has stated that she has known and worked with geniuses and, “[I] am glad I’m not one.” Norma lived by her quote that “the true believer has utmost faith in the paradox of random occurrences and love is the vehicle by which we are able to apprehend total acceptance of our current mode of being.”
Norma Tanega passed away at the age of 80 on December 29, 2019 at her Padua Hills home in Claremont.
Photography by Mark Takeuchi