1965 was a significant year in music. The British invasion was in full effect. Rubber Soul came out in 1965, as did a few U.S. releases of British albums from not just the Beatles, but the Rolling Stones. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” came out that year. The Kinks had an album. The Who released their debut album. Elvis and the Beach Boys were making music. Amidst all this, I want to talk to you about a man in a cape and a turban.
Domingo Samudio was born in Texas. He was usually considered to be of Mexican descent, and he said his grandparents had fled from the Mexican revolution, but others have written that he was of Basque and Apache decent. All of that could be true. I don’t know. What I do know is that he performed music as Sam the Sham, and for a while he had a backing band called the Pharaohs. While I know even less about the Pharaohs, I do know they don’t necessarily seem to be of Middle Eastern or Northern African origin. They dressed like extras from Lawrence of Arabia. Sam wore a turban and a cape. He hauled his gear from show to show in a hearse. Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs were gimmicky. Rock music was still relative new. It was a time when gimmicks were more prominent, and when they worked better. It was also the time of novelty songs.
Samudio and his band are the men behind “Wooly Bully.” It’s one of the all-time one hit wonders. It’s a total novelty song. It’s a goofy song about some sort of monster called the Wooly Bully. However, it is stylistically more impressive than some other early novelty songs. I will take the artistry of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs over, say, Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” or even, dare I say, Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers. Sam and his band were arguably one of the earliest garage rock bands. Others consider them in the lineage of tejano music. All I know is that the song is catchy and Samudio has a distinct vocal style that helps make the song catchy. The words “wooly bully” are never far from my mind.
“Wooly Bully” rose all the way to number two on the Billboard charts, which feels kind of crazy. Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs released an album in 1965. Naturally, it was called Wooly Bully. It seemed like it was thrown together to built off the goodwill of the titular song. Samudio only wrote three songs on the album. Most of them are rock or blues standards. They do their own version of “Long Tall Sally.” When they performed live, they were dressed in costume. You can see them on TV from the ‘60s. Apparently I had already watched one of these videos, or so I found out when I went onto YouTube.
The era of the novelty hit is a fascinating one. When was the last one of those? Was that “What does the fox say?” song count? Do we have to go back to Tom Green and “The Bum Bum Song?” In 1965, the Beatles, the Stones, Elvis, and so many stars were releasing music. For a period of time, “Wooly Bully” was the number-two song in the country. Sam was no sham.