In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs- “Wooly Bully”
PEAK: #2 on June 5, 1965
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda”
When Billboard publishes its year-end list ranking the 100 biggest songs every December, it’s usually assumed the top song will be a #1 hit and in a good majority of years that has been the case. But in what has now been four years, the song Billboard picks as the biggest performing song of a year has not been a #1 hit. In all four cases, these songs peaked in the runner up spot but despite not quite making it to the top managed to linger around longer on the charts and make more of an impact than any of the #1 songs it competed with allowing them to edge all of them out as the biggest songs of their respective years.
The first of these #2 peaking biggest songs of the years comes from 1965, a year often acclaimed by critics and music historians as an innovative year in pop music. 1965 is a year remembered as the height of the British Invasion, Motown, and the emergence of folk rock. But the biggest song that year wasn’t any of those things but instead a short and proudly silly garage rock song performed by a group who presented themselves as a novelty act dressing up in full Egyptian attire on their covers and in performances.
Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs was the creation and vehicle for one Domingo “Sam” Samudio who despite his getup was not of Egyptian heritage. Samudio was born to Mexican parents in Dallas with his mother dying during childhood leaving his father to raise the family that included two other siblings. Samudio started singing very young when in second grade he sang for his school on a local radio contest along with learning the guitar. But those music dreams were put on hold after graduating high school when Samudio enlisted in the Navy for six years which moved him to Panama.
Once out of the Navy, Samudio went right back into music enrolling in music classes at the University of Texas at Arlington but dropped out after a couple years. It was during that time when he started making a name for himself on the Dallas music scene where in 1961 he and a few bandmates came together to create The Pharaohs with the name and outfits inspired by the 1956 film The Ten Commandments. The Pharaohs released one album in 1962 that didn’t go anywhere and broke up not long after.
After the Pharaohs’ breakup, Samudio joined another group called the Nightriders as its keyboardist and singer. This is when he gained the nickname Sam the Sham which came from a joke about how bad he was as a singer. After some lineup changes and a move to Memphis, the Nightriders eventually became Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs beginning to record and release songs of their own on the local XL record label. After no success at first, the group went into San Phillips’ recording studio to bang out another song which is where “Wooly Bully” came out of.
As Sam tells it, the band did three takes of “Wooly Bully” with each one done in a different style but the label picked the first take as the single release. In the version we got, Sam and the Pharaohs essentially lifted their song from “Hully Gully Now” a 1962 song by Dallas band Big Bo & The Arrows. Listening to “Hully Gully Now,” it’s very obvious just how similar it is to “Wooly Bully” with Sam and the Pharaohs changing the title but jacking much of the rest from the lyrics to the organ-led instrumental to the breakdown. It’s the type of situation that would have easily led to a lawsuit today but in the ‘60s you could get away with easily.
As a song, “Wooly Bully” isn’t much. There were rumors that the title was referring to Sam’s cat but he has flatly denied that stating Wooly Bully was a local slang term for a big deal. In the context of the song, Wooly Bully seems to be referring to some creature or dance with each verse centering on characters named Matty and Hatty with Matty at first telling Hatty about something with two big horns and a wooly jaw while in the other verses Matty encourages Hatty to dance to not be square of “L-7” and get somebody to pull the wool with you. But in a song like this, the lyrics don’t matter all that much as the song is meant more to get people up and dancing.
Like many songs of the period, “Wooly Bully” is short at over two minutes and not afraid to get silly. Much of that silliness comes from Sam himself. True to his nickname, Sam isn’t much of a singer but makes up for it by bringing lots of energy to his performance. He does a lot of screams, ad-libs, and sings the lines in a very joking tone which altogether fits with the fun and nonsensical tone of the song down to the half-Spanish, half-English countdown on the intro. Though it may work in the context of the song, Sam’s performance doesn’t do much to make the song very memorable. Even as someone that doesn’t mind much ‘60s garage rock, “Wooly Bully” is a slight piece of the genre. When it’s on, it’s a fun little jam for two minutes but nothing more than that.
Perhaps because of its dance nature and the fact that it is ripping an older song, “Wooly Bully” feels to me a bit dated by 1965 standards. The song doesn’t sound too out of place along with the other garage rock records dominating by the mid-‘60s but with the lyrics suggesting a type of dance and the sax solo, it feels more in line with the big dance craze songs that had dominated the charts earlier in the ‘60s like “The Twist” or “The Locomotion.” Considering how fast pop music was changing by 1965, maybe this kind of recent throwback was what made “Wooly Bully” into a big hit.
In the early summer of 1965, “Wooly Bully” was a major smash selling over a million copies which is notable for an American act in the era when Americans were going crazy for all things British on the charts. But it was blocked from the top by not one but two #1 hits with The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda” at #1 the first week before the Supremes’ “Back In My Arms Again” blocked “Wooly Bully” in the second week. Despite that, “Wooly Bully” outlasted those two songs and the rest on the Hot 100 remaining on the chart for 18 weeks, the most of any song in 1965 as songs on the Hot 100 back then moved up and down quickly which is presumably how it was named by Billboard as 1965’s biggest song.
With the success of “Wooly Bully,” Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs were on the road supporting bigger acts like James Brown, Sonny & Cher, and even one of the groups who kept them out of #1 The Beach Boys. Even with all the success, things weren’t going well with the Pharaohs. The follow-up singles after “Wooly Bully” were minor chart hits and not that long after, the Pharaohs members quit over financial issues. To continue with the group, Sam recruited members of another band to join him as a new version of the Pharaohs. Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs managed to have one more big hit under the new lineup with 1966’s novelty track “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” which like “Wooly Bully” peaked at #2 during the summer. (It’s a 3.)
“Lil’ Red Riding Hood” became the last big moment of success for Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs with each new single release peaking lower and lower on the Hot 100 until 1967’s “Black Sheep” even with the joining of three female backing singers that became known as the Shamettes. After their hit-making streak ended, Sam the Sham has released music of his own but has largely been retired from music since. Sam is apparently big enough of a musical figure that he was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2016 though as someone who went there a year later I didn’t notice anything about him at the Hall.
Since leaving music behind, Sam the Sham has found a new calling in religion and charity which includes teaching the Bible to prisoners, working as an interpreter for Health Care Ministries in South America, and nowadays is working as a motivational speaker and poet at age 84. Part of me wonders if Sam still dons his turban outfit and plays “Wooly Bully” during his motivational speeches which must make for a fun time.
BONUS BEATS: Considering that many punk artists take a lot of influence from ‘60s garage rock, it’s no surprise to see some of them attempting “Wooly Bully” which includes this enjoyable punk cover of “Wooly Bully” that one-time #1 artists Joan Jett & The Blackhearts released in 1980:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 1982 teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High where Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli crashes the stage at prom while the band plays “Wooly Bully:”
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Wooly Bully” soundtracking a scene in the 1988 Stanley Kubrick Vietnam War classic Full Metal Jacket:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 1996’s Happy Gilmore where “Wooly Bully” soundtracks Adam Sandler performing a celebratory dance during a golf match:
(Adam Sandler’s highest-charting single, 1996’s “The Chanukah Song,” peaked at #80.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Wooly Bully” playing during a bar discussion scene on a 2003 episode of The Wire: