The Memphis Sound
7:35 am
Tue May 22, 2012

Pharaoh Lets His People Go-Go

For a couple of years there, Sam The Sham was the real deal. Almost in tribute to his name, Sam had the first record to be named Billboard’s number one song of the year which hadn’t actually held the number one position during the year. And it probably won’t come as a surprise that Sam wasn’t even really his name.

Domingo Samudio was born in Dallas in 1937. Following his service in the Navy, he supported his study of classical music in college during the day by playing in rock and roll bands at night. By 1961, the rock and roll won out. Domingo and his band added show-biz flair by wearing costumes inspired by the hit movie The Ten Commandments, and called themselves The Pharaohs. They cut a record, but finding no success, folded their tents.

Domingo headed for Leesville, Louisiana, joining Andy And The Nightriders as organist. His playing style relied more on comping chords than actual keyboard technique, and won him the name Sam The Sham. The band came to Memphis in the summer of 1963, as the house band at the Diplomat. A few weeks in, the “Andy” the band was named for left town, and the ensuing personnel shifts brought the costumes out of storage and turned the Nightriders into Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs.

The band tried their hand at a couple of small label singles. “Betty And Dupree” was released on Tupelo Records, and “Haunted House” came out on the Dingo label after being rejected by Hi Records.

His appearance on channel 13’s Talent Party show performing “Haunted House” caught the attention of producer Stan Kesler. Kesler recorded at both Sun Studio and Phillips Recording on Madison. Trying to nail down the course to take, Kesler asked the band to play some of their live material. One original, “Hully Gully,” had some potential. The Hully Gully craze had already run its course a couple of years earlier, so with a few minutes of woodshedding, “Hully Gully” would turn into “Wooly Bully.”

Now, almost every recorded song has a count off that allows the band to come in together at the same time. On most songs they edit it out, leaving the clean beginning, but over Sam’s objection, Stan Kessler preserved this one for posterity. And for a bunch of guys in Egyptian outfits, the count-in used a few decidedly non-Arabic numerals. “Uno, dos, one - two - tres - cuatro!” It was the sound that launched a million parties.

“Wooly Bully” captured the garage band grunge perfectly. Like the ground-breaking “Louie Louie” from the Kingsmen a couple of years earlier, the vocals were just indecipherable enough to fuel the imagination. And like “Louie Louie,“ that lyrical ambiguity got the record banned from airplay on some stations. The song’s structure itself was different. A 15-bar blues, its abrupt jump into the chorus highlights the tune’s forward momentum, and keeps the listener a little off balance.

Picked up by the MGM label, the song rose to the number two spot, unable to unseat either “Help Me Rhonda” by the Beach Boys or “Back In My Arms Again” by the Supremes. But it stayed on the charts for 18 weeks, and sold enough to be, by some accounts, Billboard’s top song of 1965, despite not hitting number one.

Among the acclaims, “Wooly Bully” earned a nomination for a Grammy as Best Contemporary Group Performance, but was passed over for “Flowers On The Wall” by the Statler Brothers.

Success of this caliber cast Sam as a novelty singer. He finished out 1965 with two more singles, “Ju Ju Hand“ and “Ring Dang Doo.” But in the following year lurked another song which would bring him to almost-number-one again.