Sam the Sham

The man who led the Pharaohs out of Memphis with one of the most enduring party classics in rock 'n' roll history was always the real deal. And still is.

Published August 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Here, for the wary, is a quick primer on cult awareness:

Bad cult -- charismatic psycho, wonky Kool-Aid, advice from the Voices in My Head  Financial Group.

Good cult -- "Uno, dos ... One, Two, Tres, Quatro!"

Ever since "Wooly Bully," which blasts off with the above incantatory countdown, rocketed up the charts in 1965, the wild, turban-wearing organ player who fronted the Pharaohs has maintained a loyal group of fans. If you're determined to be a cult follower, you might as well say "amen" to the righteous word of Sam the Sham.

The man behind one of the most enduring party classics in rock 'n' roll history will probably always be seen by some as a minor cult figure or, worse, a one-hit wonder (although Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs actually hit the top 10 twice, the second time with the underrated novelty "L'il Red Riding Hood"). But for fans who saw him rip it up in Louisiana roadhouses years before "Wooly Bully," or struggled to convert friends to the groundbreaking 1970 LP "Sam Hard and Heavy," there was no sham about it -- Sam was always the real deal.

And still is. Tell the Dallas-born rock legend -- real name, Domingo Samudio --that he's had an interesting life, and you'd better stand back. "Is it over?" he replies in mock outrage. "Are you the guy who's come to punch my ticket?"

Uh-no, hell no. But Salon People wanted a story on your career and ...

"And you told them, 'Up your nose -- gimme somebody hot, like
Ricky Martin!
Are ya tryin' to make me an archaeologist?'"

Had I said that, it would make me the biggest fool since the Decca A&R man who passed on the Beatles. Because whatever else he might be, Domingo Samudio is one of the great interviews in pop music. He's also a neglected piece of the rock 'n' roll mosaic, according to admirers like Ry Cooder (who included Samudio on the 1982 soundtrack to "The Border") and his longtime friend, writer and Rolling Stones biographer Stanley Booth.
"He's a great blues singer, an incredible live performer," Booth says. "He's a great poet."

Maybe you don't think so. Maybe you're about to cite the loopy lyrics of "Wooly Bully" as evidence for your disbelief:

Matty told Hatty about a thing she saw.

Had two big horns and a wooly jaw.

Wooly bully, wooly bully ...

But the Pharaohs' recorded rave-ups do not prepare you for the dry, laconic eloquence of Sam the Sham engaged in pleasant conversation. Booth remembers a long-ago visit when Samudio caught him at the tail end of an epic frozen-gin-and-Librium bender. "How ya doin'?" he the asked writer.

"Sam," Booth replied groggily, "I've been down under the table for three weeks."

"Well, you know," drawled Samudio, "that ol' rattlesnake's got to get down and coil before he can strike."

"I felt better right away," Booth says now.

Domingo Samudio first came to Memphis in the late 1950s. The man who would later be known for his campy onstage attire of robe and turban (inspiring one of the great tribute album names, Norton Records' 1994 release "Turban Renewal"), hit town in the uniform of the U.S. Navy. He would be back. "Oh man," Samudio recalls, "I bounced off this muddy riverbank so many times, I feel like a hand ball. And just like a hand ball, I'd get stuck in the mud sometimes."

His brother wanted Samudio to be a lawyer, even offering to pay his way through school. The future Sham had other plans. "College wasn't moving fast enough for me," he says. Eventually, his brother reluctantly came around to Samudio's dream of a music career, sending him off with some parting advice not found in Shakespeare: "Remember this -- you can make a living raising cockroaches if you work hard at it. If nothing else, people will pay you to stop raising them."

Samudio even bought an organ to make himself a more attractive addition to any prospective group. The fact that he couldn't play it struck him as only a minor problem. "I could sing," he reasons, "and I could sham."

The "Sham" nickname was, on one level, an inside reference by bandmates to Samudio's lack of organ-playing skill. But "shamming" was also slang for the practice of shimmying, jiving and cutting up, stage antics for which the young Texan was already noted. Although Samudio had already formed a version of the Pharaohs back in Texas, his early musical experiences in Louisiana came with Andy and the Nightriders. Recently, Samudio uncovered tapes of that band performing live at the Congo Club in 1963. "They're raw," he says with obvious excitement. "Kickin' stuff. You can hear the action."

Lots of action in those Louisiana clubs. At one lively spot, Samudio remembers, "A band had been there that someone didn't like, and they threw a dynamite cap under the end of the building where the bandstand was. It blew the Shure mike right through the ceiling. The band left that night."

The Nightriders did not have such problems. "When we hit Memphis," Samudio says, "across the road and down a ways were the Mar-Keys. And back up the road was the Bill Black Combo. And Willie Mitchell was playing at a club called the Manhattan, and Jerry Lee Lewis from time to time was playing at the Hi Hat. And we blew that town away."

Soon, though, leader Andy Anderson fell in love and went home to Louisiana. Band member David Martin told Samudio he was the man - the new leader of the newly rechristened group. Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs were ready to make history.

But history gave them the brush-off at first. "Haunted House," their 1964 shot at stardom, was not a hit. Prospects for the next single were judged in some quarters to be equally bleak. "Some jerk here in Memphis told me my chances of getting a gold record [with 'Wooly Bully'] were 9,000 to 1," says a still-indignant Sam, "and he sat down with a pencil and showed me."

And that's why people play the lotteries.

"Wooly Bully's" famous countdown intro was another bit of chance, a happy accident to go along with George Harrison's opening feedback on "I Feel Fine" and Roger Daltrey's stuttering vocal on "My Generation." But while the latter two examples apparently started as mistakes but were then carefully re-created on the final recordings, Samudio's Tex-Mex countdown was truly spontaneous -- a bit of studio goofing that producer Stan Kessler decided to keep. "I said 'Naw, man, don't leave that in there,'" Samudio once admitted in an interview with Jeff Jarema in Here 'Tis magazine. "We argued and he won the argument. I'm kinda glad he did."

"Wooly Bully" was a worldwide sensation and sold millions, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard charts in the summer of '65. Some minor hits followed -- "Ju Ju Hand," "Ring Dang Do," as well as overlooked albums like 1966's "On Tour." This was not novelty music, but serious R&B. However, Sam's next big smash, charting later that year, would be another fun number. "L'il Red Riding Hood" may not be a Hall of Fame classic, but it does manage to convey leering sexual menace in a surprisingly breezy and light-hearted way. Like its hit predecessor, it got all the way to No. 2.

In the '60s, Sam the Sham cut quite a figure. "The guy was so glamorous," Booth says. "He had that olive skin, well-built, dark curly hair ..." Not to mention the hearse. Samudio's favorite mode of transportation during his heyday places him in yet another rock trivia category (alongside Neil Young). The funeral wagon went well with a concert repertoire that included songs like "Witchcraft" and "Hoochie Coochie Man."

By the time of "L'il Red Riding Hood," the "Wooly Bully"-era Pharaohs had been deposed in favor of new players. Follow-up albums like 1968's "Ten of Pentacles" were not critical or commercial successes, and by 1970 Sam the Sham was ready to try something new. His "Sam Hard and Heavy" LP, credited to Sam Samudio, featured Duane Allman on guitar, the Dixie Flyers and the Memphis Horns. "I'll never understand why that album didn't do better," his friend Booth complains. It did win a Grammy-for best liner notes (a little like winning the Nobel Prize for origami. Still, it confirmed once and for all that the man has a way with words).

The '70s were spent in a variety of ways -- sometimes gigging, sometimes working as a deckhand. Samudio became a preacher. During occasional appearances at oldies shows he played mostly gospel music, and could even be found holding forth to passers-by in Memphis' Court Square. Not that the occasional promoter wouldn't try to bring back the old days. "Once I tried to discourage an individual who called me," Samudio recalls. "He'd called from Vegas, I believe. I said, 'The only way I'd ever go out on the stage in Vegas is if I had 16 dancing girls in veils; two live camels onstage; I'd like to be brought in on a sedan chair with four eunuchs, and the whole procession led by a dwarf.' There was a silence on the other end," Samudio says. "And then the promoter said, 'Sounds great. We'll book it.'"

Samudio no longer needs that sort of coaxing. He and guitarist Mark Newman will do an eight-date tour in the fall, starting Sept. 25 in Glens Falls, N.Y., then moving on to Sarasota, Fla., Omaha, Neb., Pueblo, Colo., and Utica, N.Y., among others. The former Pharaoh now appears to have reconciled his earthly hits with his still-strong spiritual beliefs. "If you go out there with a 10-pound Bible and a baseball bat, you won't help anybody," he muses. "We play one gospel number, 'It Ain't Easy.' It's not in-your-face gospel. And we do 'Wooly Bully,' 'L'il Red Riding Hood,' 'Ring Dang Do' -- we do Crossroads ` la Delta."

"You know, it's not how many notes you play. It's when, and with what intensity. I've seen it so many times -- people come in with a stack of amps that'd blow the trees over in Lower Slobovia. And after all the notes and all the noise, somebody'll get up with a beat-up old gut-bucket guitar and hit one note, and stand the trees back up."

Samudio has another motive for returning to the concert trail. Call it a mission. "My name's been getting a lot of bad promo lately."

Really? Why?

"Washington. Every time you turn around someone's tossing my name around: 'This bill is a sham; this whole agenda is a sham.' Will the real Sham please stand up?"

Amen to that.

By Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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