Born Shelby Fredrick Wooley, 10 April 1921, on a farm near Erick, Oklahoma
Singer / songwriter / actor / comedian / music publisher
Sheb Wooley was a versatile artist whose stylistic explorations have run the gamut from hillbilly and western swing to straight pop, rock ’n’ roll, novelty and modern country. His most famous musical creations were humorous : "Purple People Eater" (# 1 pop, 1958) and "That’s My Pa" (# 1 country, 1962).
As a youngster in Oklahoma, Wooley learned to ride horses and worked in a few rodeos. That experience served him well in Hollywood, where he played in some sixty films (mostly westerns), starting with "Rocky Mountain" (1950) and including "High Noon" (1952), "Giant" (1956) and "Rio Bravo" (1959). He co-starred as Pete Nolan in the popular TV series "Rawhide" (1959-65).
Sheb started his career in music as a songwriter in Nashville. His biggest successes as a writer for others were "Too Young To Tango", a # 4 country single for teenaged Sunshine Ruby in 1953, and "Are You Satisfied", a pop success (# 11) for Rusty Draper in 1956. Wooley’s own version of the latter song reached # 95, his first taste of chart success.
He made his first recordings for the Bullet label in December 1945, followed by a session for Bluebonnet in 1947. The next year he signed with MGM, the beginning of a 25-year affiliation (1948-1973). Though chart success was almost non-existent during the first ten years, MGM kept the faith and in 1958 it would finally pay off in a giant way. The inspiration for "The Purple People Eater" came from two sources. A riddle was making the rounds among school children : What has one eye, flies, has a horn and eats people? The answer was, of course, "A one-eyed, one-horned flying people eater". When a friend repeated the riddle to Sheb, he immediately saw the makings of a song. The other influence was the success of "Witch Doctor" by David Seville, with its double-speed recording technology. Wooley recorded the voice of the people eater and his saxophone (played by none other than Plas Johnson) at half speed and played it back at full speed. "The Purple People Eater" entered the Billboard charts at # 7 on June 2, 1958, went straight to number one the next week and stayed there for six weeks. The success of the song (3 million copies sold in 1958 alone) led to the merchandising of hats (with horns attached), T-shirts and even ice cream. Mind you, the creature eats purple people, he’s not purple himself.
Predictably, several of Wooley’s follow-ups featured sped-up voices, but apart from the non-novelty "Sweet Chile" (# 70, 1959), there was no further chart success until early 1962. The exuberant "That’s My Pa" gave him his first entry into the country charts (# 1 for one week) and also reached # 51 on the pop charts. The year 1962 also saw the beginning of Wooley's success as his comic alter ego, Ben Colder (comparable to Ferlin Husky’s hayseed character Simon Crum), starting with "Don’t Go Near the Eskimos" (# 18 country, # 62 pop), a parody of the Rex Allen hit "Don’t Go Near the Indians". Many Ben Colder recordings were parodies of big country hits (a la Homer & Jethro) , like "Detroit City", "Still", "Hello Walls", "Almost Persuaded" and "Harper Valley P.T.A.". Wooley had no more hits under his own name (except for a Top 10 hit in Australia with "Hootenanny Hoot" in 1963, with Boots Randolph on sax), but as Ben Colder he scored five (minor) pop hits and eight country hits between 1962 and 1971. Colder also recorded a new version of "The Purple People Eater" (1967). The later MGM recordings were produced by Jim Vienneau (1961-65, 1969-73) and Jack Clement (1965-1968).
In 1968, Ben Colder won the Comedian of the Year Award from the Country Music Association.
Wooley was involved in the early stages of the country TV show "Hee Haw" and wrote the song’s theme music. After leaving MGM in 1973, he recorded only sporadically, but he remained active as a performer, writer and music publisher into the 1990s.
In 1996 he was diagnosed with leukemia. Sheb Wooley died at the Skyline Medical Center in Nashville in 2003, at the age of 82. Though he made many serious recordings, the general public didn’t seem to want to hear Wooley singing anything but silly ditties and he is primarily remembered as a novelty artist.
Official website : http://www.shebwooley.com
Discography / sessionography :
Acknowledgements : Kevin Coffey, Fred Bronson, Walt Trott.
As Ben Colder :
Dik, February 2015
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