Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, the Tex-Mex, blues, and rock band led by Domingo “Sam” Samudio (born in Dallas in 1937), went from obscurity to worldwide fame when “Wooly Bully,” a work Samudio composed, ascended to the Number 2 spot on the Billboard charts in May 1965. The song remained on Billboard for fourteen weeks. Approximately three million copies of “Wooly Bully,” including one million in Europe, were ultimately sold. The song, “a thudding beat number with a tongue-twisting chorus and nonsense lyrics,” became the Number 11 hit in Britain, where it was a bestselling single for fifteen weeks. The recording also made the band the top U.S. rock group in Germany.
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs had initially failed in their pursuit of success with their recording of “Haunted House” for Dingo Records in 1964. Their fortunes changed dramatically in 1965 when they signed a contract to record with MGM Records, where Roy Orbison, The Animals, and Herman’s Hermits produced their hit songs. The band again reached the Number 2 position in Billboard in July 1966 when the song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” was released and remained on the charts for eleven weeks. Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs went on to record “Ju Ju Hand,” “Red Hot,” and other singles that reached Billboard’s Top 100.
Samudio, a veteran of the United States Navy who had also attended Arlington State College, initially organized a band in Dallas in 1961 and called it the Pharaohs. Members included Carl Medke, Russell Fowler, Omar “Big Man” López, Domingo (Sam) Samudio, and Vincent López. In 1962 the Pharaohs made one record, but Samudio dropped out of the group. Samudio also played with Andy and the Nightriders in Dallas. He remained in the city when some of the Nightriders moved to Louisiana to pursue more opportunities. When the Nightriders lost their organist, they invited Samudio, who had only recently purchased an organ and was a novice in playing the instrument, to join the group in Louisiana. In 1963 the Nightriders joined the stream of musicians headed to Memphis, Tennessee, to find success. However by the late summer, some of the Nightriders returned to their homes in Texas and Louisiana. Samudio organized a new band and named it Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. The newly-constituted band was made up of Ray Stinnet, guitar; Dave Martin, bass; Jerry Patterson, drums; and Sam Samudio, organ and vocals. Saxophonist Butch Gibson soon joined the group.
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs were unusual in several ways. To questions regarding the origins of the term “sham,” Samudio answered that it was “rhythm-and-blues jargon for shuffling, twisting or jiving around to music.” Before taking up the organ, Samudio “shammed” while he sang, so he found the term a fitting one for the band’s name. Also, being a novice on organ, he had to “sham” his way through playing. In addition, he and his fellow musicians were known for wearing Middle Eastern attire for their performances. Indeed, Samudio wore a “jewelled jacket and feathered turban.” He purchased a hearse that he called “Black Beauty” in which to haul his organ and his Leslie speaker, and the band toured in that vehicle.
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs recorded several albums, including Wooly Bully (1965), Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (1965), On Tour (1965), and Li’l Red Riding Hood (1966). The band appeared on popular television shows such as Hullabaloo and The Ed Sullivan Show and was also featured in the film When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965). “Wooly Bully” was chosen by Billboard as Record of the Year for 1965. Samudio had an acting role in The Fastest Guitar Alive (1966).
After enjoying a brief, illustrious career during the 1960s, the group disappeared from the music scene after 1967. They were best-known for their punchy novelty songs, but that label hindered them from breaking out with more rock-oriented numbers. In 1970 Domingo Samudio, the Pharaoh’s leader, undertook a solo career and was awarded a Grammy in 1971 for Best Album Liner Notes to his record Sam, Hard and Heavy. Samudio also wrote two Spanish-language songs for the 1982 film The Border. He later expanded his repertoire to include gospel and country. “Wooly Bully” was part of the soundtrack of Night and the City (1992). In 1994 a number of artists recorded Turban Renewal: A Tribute to Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs. The group’s first and fourth albums were reissued on CD in 2004.