Sunday, March 23, 2008

Dark Star (or) Song of Sam

The Beatles’ barnstorming of America in February of 1964 is widely considered to be the beginning of the ‘British Invasion,’ an era marked by the domination of American popular music charts and concert venues by groups from the UK such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks. In the wake of this musical flood, American groups scrambled to regain ground and chart position, and in the spring of 1965 a rallying cry burst forth from Memphis, Tennessee, courtesy of Texas R&B band Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs. “Wooly Bully,” their pulsing, frantic, decidedly Southern call-to-arms remained on the charts for 18 weeks and went on to sell over three million copies worldwide, winning Billboard’s “Record of the Year” award and earning the group a Grammy nomination.

This reclaiming of American musical territory in the wake of the ‘British Invasion’ is rendered even more significant upon closer examination of The Pharaohs themselves, a mixed race group led by Mexican American musician Domingo ‘Sam’ Samudio. Sam was born in Dallas in 1933 to Santiago Samudio and Aurora Sanchez, and spent six years in the Navy before being discharged in 1962. While attending the University of Texas at Arlington, he formed an early version of The Pharaohs before accepting a position as a lead singer and organist with a group called Andy and The Nightriders in Louisiana. By the time The Nightriders arrived in Memphis for an extended engagement at The Diplomat Club, Sam had assumed full control of the band, rechristening them “Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs.” Under Sam’s leadership, the band was signed to the Memphis-based Pen record label, and recorded “Wooly Bully” soon thereafter.

I provide this brief history to demonstrate ways in which Domingo ‘Sam’ Samudio asserted and affirmed his Mexican American identity over 40 years ago. At a time when Latino identity and culture, as well as border politics, are of such national concern, it’s crucial that we think deeply about the work of Latino musical pioneers like Sam in an attempt to identify past sites of cultural negotiation and enactment. It would be wise to heed Sam’s incantory introduction to “Wooly Bully” as a powerful proclamation of our heterogeneous cultural mix as a nation. In 1965, the distinctly American response to the ‘British Invasion’ heard around the world went something like this: “UNO, DOS, ONE, TWO, TRES, QUATRO!”

Although the triumph of “Wooly Bully” went a long way towards returning the nexus of popular musical power back to the United States, Sam’s subsequent tenure with The Pharaohs was a series of diminishing returns. Largely perceived as a novelty act, the group recorded several fairytale-inspired records (including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Pied Piper,” and “The Hair On My Chinny Chin Chin”) before Sam disbanded the group, frustrated that his work was not being taken seriously. In 1972, Sam released “Hard and Heavy,” a solo album that found him in collaboration with Jerry Wexler’s Miami-based house band The Dixie Flyers (which at this time included Duane Allman, Jim Dickinson, Mike Utley, Tommy McClure, and the Memphis Horns). “Hard and Heavy” earned Sam a Grammy for his self-penned liner notes, which read as a treatise on issues of class, race, and family. However, despite Sam’s work towards establishing a new American musical identity through the late 1960s and early 1970s, “Hard and Heavy” would be the last time (aside from a short-lived collaboration with Ry Cooder in 1980) that the wider public would hear from Sam the Sham.

The story of Domingo ‘Sam’ Samudio raises several questions that warrant serious consideration: How did Sam negotiate and reconcile his status as a Mexican American with his status as a Southerner through the 1960s and 70s? As a Latino musical celebrity performing throughout the South, which cultural roads was he forced to walk (by record companies, audiences, concert promoters), and which did he choose to walk? How does he construct his identity now? And importantly, in what ways does Sam’s story dovetail with narratives of other Latino musicians from the South such as Freddy Fender (born Baldemar Huerta) and Augie Meyers? An oft told story reveals how early promotional photographs of the Sir Douglas Quintet (for whom Meyers played organ) were taken in silhouette, in effect disguising the ethnicity of the predominantly Mexican American band. Sam’s bilingual countdown at the beginning of “Wooly Bully,” and his outspoken address of his identity as a Mexican American in the liner notes to “Hard and Heavy” propose a counter-narrative, one that finds him in a complex cultural discussion about the South as home.

Somehow, Sam has been strangely forgotten. “Wooly Bully” is certainly remembered (and often played) as a party favorite, but the bilingual shout that brought popular music back to America is rarely thought of in the context of Southern race relations in the 1960s. Sam has continued to live in the South; he worked throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s servicing oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and later traveled as an itinerant preacher. I recently tracked Sam down at his home in Memphis, and he told me, in no uncertain terms, that his life’s work “hasn’t even begun.”

A larger Latino population than ever before currently calls the American South home; with this changing demographic comes conversation- sometimes volatile, always vital- about what it means to be American and Southern. In participating in these conversations, we would do well to consider the work of Sam the Sham as a potential lens through which to look towards our future.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

fine essay and good questions, but something else to consider maybe is that Texas is not really the South. Even though much of his musical experience did take place in the South, his formative years were very different in Texas, probably just as repressive, but different to be sure. Just a thought from a Texan who is now a southerner.