Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs – The MGM Singles

January 01, 1970



Early rock ‘n’ roll is
littered with larger-than-life personalities whose flamboyance heightened
rather than hindered their music. There’s Little Richard, who turned a gay-bar
ditty into a smash hit, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who often entered the stage
in a coffin. There’s the mysterious ?, of the Mysterians, who adopted his
symbol stage name decades before Prince went off the deep end. And then there’s
Domingo Samudio -a.k.a. Sam the Sham – the Mexican-born, Texas-bred,
Memphis-based bandleader famous for his scratchy vocals, sequined jackets, and
feathery turban. He and the Pharoahs traveled to and from shows in a white
hearse with red curtains and performed songs based on nursery rhymes.


It’s tempting to think of
Sam the Sham as a novelty act – not that there’s anything shameful in that. His
biggest hit, 1965’s “Wooly Bully,” is one of those rare pop songs that
transcend genre and generation. Even if nobody knows what the hell it’s about,
the song’s eccentric organ-and-sax stomp remains one of rock and roll’s most
instantly recognizable riffs. Ostensibly written about Sam’s cat, “Wooly Bully”
showcases a tight, road-hardened band that could stand up against any of the
then-popular British Invasion acts.


“Wooly Bully” leads off
Sundazed’s new 2xLP collection that gathers 32 of the band’s singles for MGM,
and while there’s nothing here remotely as popular as that signature song – which
Billboard named Record of the Year in
1965-this set argues that the band’s output didn’t suffer after that smash
single. Far from a one-hit wonder, they scored numerous subsequent hits, which
may not have been as popular but were equally imaginative. “Ju Ju Hand”
recycles that song’s raunchy riff against a loopy vocal from Sam, and the
Pharoahs barrel through Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot” like they’re breaking out
of prison.


There were, of course,
numerous incarnations of the Pharoahs, but there was only one Sam the Sham, who
proves a wild and randy presence on these tracks. He’s often as goofy as a
creature feature host (especially on “Li’l Red Riding Hood,” a number two hit
in ’66), but there’s so much celebration in his vocals. He mutters and mumbles
on both “The Hair on My Chinny Chin Chin” and How Do You Catch a Girl,” but
then turns in genuinely soulful turns on “Love Me Like Before” and “The Love
You Left Behind.”


There’s a certain
innocence to these tracks and their gleeful jokiness, although that would make
it quickly passé as the ‘60s grew darker and rock grew more self-serious. The
MGM Singles grows shakier as it progresses, as Sam tries out different gimmicks
like the Sham-ettes and the Sam the Sham Revue. The Sham-ettes turn “Li’l Red
Riding Hood” on its head on “(Hey There) Big Bad Wolf,” and their harmonies on
“I’d Rather Have You” simmer like southern-fried girl-group pop. And “Black
Sheep” counts among Sam’s finest singles and most delirious performances.


By 1970 Sam had been
dropped by MGM, but he returned to the label in 1973 for a lone single. The
anti-war anthem “Fate” adopts the harder blues-rock sounds that had replaced
his r&b stomp, but Sam gets a little lost in the generic groove, which has
no room for his lusty howl. He sounds more at home on the lonesome country
gospel of “Oh Lo,” a touring diary with tons of personality. It’d be a fine
sign-off for such a squirrelly musician, but Sam the Sham kept going. He’s
still going today, in fact, as wooly and red hot as ever.


DOWNLOAD: “Wooly Bully,” “Red Hot,” “I’d Rather Have You,” “Black Sheep,” “Oh Lo” STEPHEN



Leave a Reply