Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs - Biography
By Bob Fagan
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs are remembered chiefly for their 1965 big hit “Wooly Bully.”. Often overlooked by the critics, Sam the Sam and the Pharaohs were in fact a fine Texas-styled dance band with their roots in R&B and the pop hits of the late 50s and early 60s.
Domingo “Sam the Sham” Samudio was born in Dallas, TX and is of Mexican American descent. In 1963 he joined the band Andy and the Nightriders as an organ player. The band knew him through another member, Vincent Lopez, who had played in an early version of the Pharaohs with Sam in 1961. The Nightriders initially based themselves in Louisiana, where they became a popular dance band attraction. The band soon relocated to Memphis Tennessee; when leader Andy Anderson departed, Samudio took over leadership of the band, now renamed Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. These Pharaohs were Ray Stinnet on guitar, David Martin on bass, Jerry Patterson on drums, and occasional member Butch Gibson on saxophone. There are varying stories over the origin of Samudio’s nickname; some sources saying it drew from Samudio’s lack of any real skill at his chosen instrument, the organ. In keeping with the band name, Sam and his Pharaohs wore turbans and rather ridiculous looking Egyptian hoods. Another gimmick was the band’s mod of transportation-a tricked-out hearse that could carry the band members and all their musical gear from show to show.
They signed with MGM Records and their first release for the label was the monster hit “Wooly Bully.” The song made it to number two in the US and sold millions of copies. The song’s infectious if nonsensical lyrics (some listeners claim to hear the cry “Hand-job! Hand-job!” during the opening instrumental passage) and Mexican-flavor made the song a jukebox favorite and garage band perennial. Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs first album, Wooly Bully (1965 MGM) featured a few Samudio originals mixed with more novelty numbers like “Haunted House,” and covers of Little Richard and Johnny Guitar Watson tunes. The band and Sam’s vibrant onstage personality strongly resembled fellow Texans The Sir Douglas Quintet, right down to Sam’s “dit-dit-dit” eighth-note organ parts, which are virtually indistinguishable from the playing of The Quintet’s Augie Meyers.
Their second album (Their Second Album, 1965 MGM) contained their minor follow-up hit “Juju Hand,” and is notable for being a virtual concept album about voodoo and gypsies. The material was presented with a cross-pollination of styles, from Tin Pan Alley standards (“Witchcraft” and Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic”) to Leiber and Stoller’s “Love Potion #9” and the hoodoo blues of Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working” and Willie Dixon’s “Hootchie Cootchie Man.”
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs On Tour (MGM, 1965), their third release, followed the standard MGM format: every MGM band released an “On Tour” LP. It was their third album in less than a year. “Ring Dang Doo” was a minor hit, and the record dropped most of the voodoo shtick to focus on the group’s R&B roots. That same year the band also appeared, as themselves, in the Connie Francis teen flick When the Boys Meet the Girls. Samudio also had a small non-musical acting role in the now almost forgotten Roy Orbison Civil War drama, The Fastest Guitar Alive.
In 1967 they released their last top ten hit, the charmingly lecherous “Little Red Riding Hood.” By this time only Samudio remained from the original band, as the rest of the group had departed over financial issues. New members included Louis Vilardo on drums, and Ronnie Jacobsen on bass. Samudio then put together “The Sam The Sham Revue,” complete with three female backing singers – The Shamettes (perhaps modeled after Ike and Tina Turner‘s Ikettes.) The Shamettes – Fran Curcio, Lorraine Gennaro and Jane Anderson released a few 45s under their own name, including an answer song to “Little Red Riding Hood” entitled “(Hey There) Big Bad Wolf.”
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs had by this time unfortunately painted themselves into a corner by recording so many novelty songs, and with the new seriousness attached to pop music by 1967, their music was widely perceived as out of touch with the changing times. By 1970 Samudio had broken up the band. Moving to Atlantic Records, the most respected R&B label at the time, Samudio released Sam, Hard and Heavy (1971 Atlantic). The record was a fine collection of well-sung blues, featuring covers of Otis Rush, John Lee Hooker and Big Bill Broonzy’s “Keys to the Highway.” Musicians on the album included the soon to be famous Duane Allman. It may have been Allman who brought “Keys to the Highway” to his next project, Derek and the Dominos, who would record the song for their double album Layla. Hard and Heavy also featured members of Dixie Flyers, Atlantic Records’ house band, including famed keyboardist Jim Dickinson, who would go on to work with both Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones.
Hard and Heavy, despite its high quality, failed in its attempt to re-brand Samudio as a blues singer. (Oddly enough, Samudio won a Grammy for the album’s humorous, philosophical liner notes.) Samudio left the music business for several years. For a time he worked as a deckhand on ships running supplies to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. In the late 70s he turned to the church, becoming a street preacher. In 1982 he resurfaced on the soundtrack of the Jack Nicholson film The Border, singing his own compositions alongside those of Ry Cooder and Freddy Fender (The Border: Music from The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1982 Backstreet). At the turn of the millennium, he appeared to have made peace with his rock n roll past, and has since gone out on the road regularly, singing gospel songs and a selection of R&B songs as well as his two biggest hits, “Wooly Bully” and” Little Red Riding Hood.” He writes poetry and publishes his memoirs piece meal on his own website. His writing reveals a sharp and distinctive style and an earthy wit behind all those silly novelty tunes for which he is primarily remembered. He also has somewhat belatedly begun to receive his due as the fine blues singer he could be, given the right material.
All of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs recordings are available on CD, including a dizzying array of greatest hits repackages. Norton Records’ Turban Renewal: A Tribute to Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (1994) is an entertaining collection of covers by various artists, including Hasil Adkins, Handsome Dick Manitoba, The Fleshtones and The Lyres. Pharaohization: The Best of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (1998 Rhino) is an excellent 24-song collection that ignores most of the novelty tunes in favor of the band’s most authentic and rocking R&B and rock 'n' roll performances.