LOOK WHO WE FOUND : <i> Ever wondered whatever happened to your favorite pop or rock stars? Well, we have too. So today we’re starting “Look Who We Found,” an occasional series spotlighting stars of the past. This week it’s . . . </i> : SAM the SHAM
U no . . . dos . . . one, two, tres, quatro!
When Sam the Sham shouted that famous intro at the recent “Latino Rock ‘n’ Roll All-Stars” concert at the Greek Theatre, delighted fans thought he was going to launch into his party-rock classic “Wooly Bully.”
But he didn’t. The man who had a No. 2 hit with the song in 1965 (and returned to the No. 2 spot the next year with the even-more-novelty “Lil’ Red Riding Hood”) is no longer the turban-sporting Sam the Sham. Though he still answers to Sam, he’s now Domingo Samudio--his given name when he was born in Dallas 54 years ago.
“I still sing and write, but I’m not writing to get on the Top 10,” he said by phone from his home in Memphis, Tenn., where he is part of a Christian ministry that provides counseling, food and care to prisoners and indigent people throughout the South and in Mexico. "(Music is) my gift from the Lord. I feel I’ve yet to write my best music. It’s a far cry from ‘Wooly Bully,’ but it’s me writing it.”
Samudio was lured by Ry Cooder to help on the score to the 1982 movie “The Border,” but otherwise the music he’s doing today is gospel-rock. His most recent cassette album, “Wired, Fired and Inspired,” proved a little too raucous for the Christian labels, so he gives away copies to people he feels might get a lift from it.
Samudio’s break from Sam the Sham came in 1973. In 1970 he’d tried to shed his old image, recording an album for Atlantic that featured guitarist Duane Allman and the Memphis Horns, with songs written by Boz Scaggs and Doc Pomus as well as original material. But the album, “Sam, Hard and Heavy,” was a commercial flop, though it did win a Grammy for Samudio’s liner notes.
“Folks were forever looking for another ‘Wooly Bully’ or ‘Lil’ Red Riding Hood,’ ” he said. “I got tired of saying ‘Check this out’ about my new stuff.”
Nonetheless, Samudio kept himself in the music business, sort of, moving from Miami to the Hollywood Hills, living off a 10-year guaranteed contract from MGM Records. But problems with taxes and drugs plagued him.
“I ran out of hope, ran out of dope, got to the end of my rope and knew if I didn’t change I wasn’t gonna make it,” he said. “One night on the floor of my Hollywood apartment in the heat I said, ‘Lord, let me up. If you just take this desire away, I know I need to change.’ And there was no thunder or lightning, just a soft voice in my heart saying, ‘I gave you a talent, and look what you’ve done with it.’ ”
Samudio moved to Memphis, and after a failed marriage he started working as a deckhand and mate on small commercial boats in the Gulf of Mexico and as an interpreter in the oil fields of Mexico, seeking to bury Sam the Sham for good. He pretty much succeeded.
“One day down in Mexico this drunk sailor came on my boat wanting a ride out to his boat in the bay,” he recalled. “He started calling me Sam the Sham. I asked why he was calling me that. He said, ‘Man, haven’t you ever heard of Sam the Sham? He used to be a big rock star, but now he’s dead. Went down in a plane with Otis Redding.’ ”
Samudio returned to Memphis and began his ministry activities, in part supported by the royalties he still gets from his hits--"Wooly Bully” has been used in eight movies in recent years, he said, and in 1985 Rhino Records released “Pharaohization!: The Best of Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs.” He and his wife have a young daughter, and he also has two grown sons and two grandchildren from his previous marriage.
From this comfortable distance, he looks on bemusedly as others from his generation try to pretend that they are still young rockers.
“You see guys out there scared of the big R--rejection,” Samudio said with his gruff “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” laugh. “They try to act young, and then they’re running backstage for the oxygen tank. It’s pathetic. I know who I am in the Lord. . . . I’ve got a good home and sound mind, I’ve got food to eat and I live in America. Isn’t that worth getting out of bed for?”