Domingo “Sam” Samudio – aka Sam The Sham – was born in Dallas, 80 years ago today.
With his band, The Pharaohs, Sam is best known for the 1965 “Tex-Mex” hit Wooly Bully. Probably THE “frat rock” classic, with the likes of Louie Louie and 96 Tears coming close behind. It’s a sound that influenced countless bands that followed1, and a genre that Springsteen affectionately referenced with Sherry Darling. But there’s more to tell of Sam.
So here we go: Uno… Dos… One, Two, Tres, Quatro! Watch it now! Watch it!
After graduating high school, Sam spent 6 years in Panama with the US Navy. On returning to the USA, around 1961, he went on to study music at Arlington State College. That included a bit of opera singing and appearances in productions such as Boris Godunov. In parallel, Sam formed a rock’n’roll band. He was known to dash across town, following an appearance in some classical concert, to sing rock’n’roll with his band late into the night.
As the band became more well known, they had to travel further for gigs. “Sam needed something to haul his organ and Leslie speaker in. Sam asked the club owner where he…might find a used hearse. The club owner found a 1952 Packard hearse…complete with maroon velvet curtains. Every night The Bela Lugosi Special—”BLACK BEAUTY” as Sam called her—would ease out of the driveway and into the dark. OUT ON THE HUNT AND READY TO JUMP. DOWN TO THE STRIP AND READY TO RIP.”2
Sam claimed “Black Beauty made about a hundred miles per hour of sound and smoke” but only “about thirty-five miles real speed.” Out of necessity, they perfected a novel way to save time. “[Rather than] stopping to change drivers, we utilized the sliding window between the back compartment and the front seat [to] switch drivers on the run. The driver would merely slide over to the ‘shot gun’ side, holding the steering wheel with his left hand and controlling the speed with his left foot on the throttle. The relief driver would then slide feet first, from the back, through the window to land behind the steering wheel. The relieved driver would then slide the glass window over to the back of the driver and climb into the back to take his turn sleeping.”
On stage, Sam dressed in a bejewelled jacket and feathered turban. The rest of the group decked out in, frankly ridiculous, “Egyptian” costumes that wouldn’t look out of place in a primary school nativity play. But the daft clothes—or perhaps the years of gigging 5-6 nights every week—eventually led to success. In the summer of 1965, Wooly Bully sold over 3 million copies, briefly holding back the tide of the British Invasion. Or, as Sam said: “Wooly Bully kicked Beatle butt!” [Beatle-related Trivia: Wooly Bully includes the line “let’s not be L7”, referring to the shape made when combining an “L” shape made with the fingers of one hand and a “7” shape made with the other. That is: “let’s not be square”. Paul McCartney later directly references “L7” in his song C Moon – “It will be L7 and I’d never get to heaven”. “C Moon” itself referring to the shape made by combining a “C” shape made with one hand and a crescent moon with the other. That is, a circle: the opposite of square.]
A few more minor hits followed—notably, Ju Ju Hand—and in 1966, signed to MGM, the slightly sinister Li’l Red Riding Hood gave them their first number one. The band continued in various permutations for a few more years but, unable to shake the ‘novelty act’ label, never again achieved significant chart success.
Eventually Sam walked away, primarily because MGM weren’t interested in letting him develop a more sophisticated style and just wanted another Wooly Bully. He had tried to move forward with a solo album in the early ’70s—Sam, Hard and Heavy—but it didn’t sell well. Problems with drugs and unpaid tax followed. He recalls, at his low point, “I ran out of hope, ran out of dope, got to the end of my rope and knew if I didn’t change I wasn’t gonna make it”.
Fortunately, change he did. By 1978 he was living quietly, away from the music business, working as a deck hand on oil rig service boats out of Louisiana. He put the Spanish he got from his Mexican parents to good use, becoming unofficial interpreter for the mainly Mexican labour force. Briefly tempted, by Ry Cooder, back into the studio to contribute two songs to the soundtrack of the Jack Nicholson/Harvey Keitel film The Border [Springsteen-related trivia: Bruce’s The Line is said to be inspired by this movie], Sam was soon back on the boats. In the 1980s he studied for, and gained, his captain’s license and continued his career on the Gulf of Mexico rig supply ships. When he did eventually become tired of the sea, he settled in Memphis and put his interpreting skills to good use by teaching Bible study classes and providing counselling services and food parcels to the impoverished in southern Texas and Mexico. He’s quietly released numerous albums over the years, in various styles, without any desire to return to the “big time”. More recently he’s become a motivational speaker and a poet. So let’s conclude with a motivational thought from the man himself:
“There are times in a band’s life when you’re jammin’. And there are times in a band’s life when you’re cookin’. But when you’re COOKIN’ AND JAMMIN’, you’ve experienced the DEVINE. At such moments, I’ve thought; if at the end of this song I were to die, it wouldn’t matter; I’ve lived.”