The wooliest bully of 'em allSteve Hammer
One song that certainly deserves its place in rock history is "Wooly Bully" by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs. Released in 1965, it's sold millions of copies and continues to be played wherever parties occur.
The man behind the song, Sam the Sham, has been playing music for almost 50 years. His real name is Domingo Samudio and he chose the name Sam the Sham, he says, "because I could sing and I could sham."
Sam will be part of the Jingle Bell Rock concert at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11 at the Pike Performing Arts Center, 6701 Zionsville Road, along with a number of other 1960s era acts, including Billy J. Kramer and Ron Dante, the mastermind behind The Archies. (Call 239-5151 for ticket information.)
Nobody but Sam knows his true age, and he ain't telling. It doesn't matter; besides two classic singles, he's worked with Roy Orbison, Jack Nicholson, John Lee Hooker and countless other legends. Although his main love these days is gospel music, he knows that people pay to hear him sing "Wooly Bully."
About the song itself, he says, "We did three takes and all of 'em were different. It was recorded on a three-track machine where we all had to play it right at the same time. We didn't have the luxury of overdubs; I don't think we even knew what those were. I always liked to cut songs live anyway."
The original Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs band took shape in Dallas in 1961, where the band would play until 2 a.m. at dive clubs. "I guess you would call us a garage band. We played places with names like the Saddle Club and the Maverick. The musicians who had good-paying jobs would come to see us play. We couldn't even afford a bass, so we had three guitars and drums. We'd turn the treble on the Telecaster off and play bass on that. It was rock and roll."
Although Sam never played the burlesque bars of Dallas, he did meet and know nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who later gained fame by killing Lee Harvey Oswald. "I talked to him for a while, and then I quit talking to him," Sam says, and refuses to elaborate.
The group had relocated to Memphis circa 1964 and tried to gain attention there by again playing dive bars and rough-and-tumble bars. "Somebody asked me if we ever played behind chicken wire," Sam says. "I told 'em naw, chicken wire is for chickens. Memphis was tame compared to Dallas."
He bought an organ, hoping to find an organist that way - Sam knew lots of keyboardists but none with their own gear - and three days later, despite his inexperience with the instrument, Sam was hired as a session player in Memphis.
"All I could do was play chords," he says. "But I had a certain rhythm. It had body. It was a ball of rhythm coming at you. We played a place called the Congo Club. I thought it was the top of the heap until someone told me about gold records. So we decided to go get us one."
After "Wooly Bully" hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts, the band followed up with some intense R&B not unlike that being made across town in Memphis at the Stax studios. But Sam's next and last hit was a novelty number, "Little Red Riding Hood," a song about which it has been written, "manages to convey leering sexual menace in a surprisingly breezy and light-hearted way." It hit No. 2 as well.
By then, the original Pharoahs had been jettisoned in favor of new players and Sam never saw the top of the charts again.
Sam acted and sang in a few movies - including 1982's The Border, featuring Nicholson - and released a few solo albums. But he will forever be known as Mr. "Wooly Bully." Asked if that frustrates him, Sam sighs.
"At one point, it was frustrating. That's what drove me to the water. After I won a Grammy - and a lot of people don't know that - I did an album with Duane Allman and the Memphis Horns and Duck Dunn. I've been through the rock and roll grind and I've gone to A&R record guys and played them new material. I remember one very prominent individual saying, 'No, no, no, Sam, just bring me another 'Wooly Bully' or 'Little Red Riding Hood.' My response was, 'How do you know this isn't one of those? You didn't recognize "Wooly Bully" when it started.' So I just quit trying to convince people about it and kept on writing and kept the material to myself.
"I recorded all of these albums and just put them away. And people would ask me, 'When are you gonna do something with them?' My response was, 'I've done something with them. I've recorded them the way I intended them to be recorded.' It doesn't matter. My attitude is, don't follow the trend, set it. Grackles, man, they fly around in a flock. But eagles fly high. I may not be an eagle but I'm workin' on it."