Sheb Wooley is best known for his huge novelty hit "Purple People Eater," which sold over three million copies in the late 1950's and early 60s. However, among fans of country and western music, Sheb is considered the real article: a genuine cowboy singer. He started riding horses as a boy in rodeos, and was making a living on the rodeo circuit as a teenager. His career in entertainment started with music and then acting, appearing in such classic Westerns as High Noon, before he was ever well-known as a singer, and later spent six seasons playing cowboy Pete Nolan on the unforgettable television series Rawhide. Throughought his career in acting, he continued to pursue country ane western music. His repertory includes traditional country music and hillbilly tunes, along with the ubiquitous "Purple People Eater." Later on in the 1960s, he also developed a drunken comic persona named Ben Colder, whose success in lampooning country music, its audience, and its sensibilities was a huge sensation in it's own right.
Sheb was born in Erick, Oklahoma, on April 10, 1921. From an early age, he had a strong passion for horseriding, and was competing in local rodeos before he was ten years old. By his teenage years, Sheb was one of the top young riders on the rodeo circuit. Music was also one of his interests, and Wooley got his first guitar when his father traded a shotgun for a steel string. His family saw tough times during the depression of the 1930s, as the dry dust bowl winds threatened their livelyhood.
While working the oil fields of Oklahoma as a welder, Wooley led his own country band in high school. Like many Oklahomans seeking opportunity, Wooley headed to California and worked at a packing plant, moving crates of oranges. It was during this period that Wooley married Melba Miller, the older sister of future country music star Roger Miller. At the outset of the second world war, Wooley found himself labeled 4-F (ineligible for military service) because of injuries he'd sustained as a rodeo rider. He assisted the war effort by working in defense plants.
By 1945 he made it to Nashville, Music City USA, where he made his first records for the Bullet label, and began appearing as a singer/guitarist on WLAC. The gig wasn't a paying one, but allowed Sheb to promote himself and his music. His Bullet sides were cut at WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry, but sadly they saw almost no play or exposure of any kind.
Frustrated with the opportunities in Nashville, a year later he moved to Fort Worth, TX, and got a regular spot on radio there, sponsored by Calumet Baking Powder. In 1949, at the suggestion of a friend at WSM, Wooley left Texas for California in hope of breaking into the film industry. Around this same time, he was signed as a songwriter to Hill & Range, the publishing company and signed with MGM Records in 1950, home of the sensation Hank Williams.
Sheb made an investment in acting lessons to help win some work on the silver screen, and succeeded brilliantly, appearing in small parts in 40 feature films, beginning with Rocky Mountain, Errol Flynn's final Western, in 1949. His most notable screen came two years later in the classic High Noon (1952), in which he played Ben Miller, the leader of the outlaw gang gunning for town marshal Gary Cooper. He also played an important supporting role in the historical drama Little Big Horn (1951), starring Lloyd Bridges and John Ireland, and was seen in The Man Without a Star (1955), Giant (1956), and Rio Bravo (1959), starring John Wayne.
Wooley continued recording and writing songs during his busy acting schedule. It wasn't until 1958, however, that he had a hit, and it was a most unexpected song. Wooley had written several songs that were hits for other singers, most notably "Are You Satisfied," which got to number 11 on the country charts as recorded by Rusty Draper in 1955. Wooley had always displayed a gift for parody, and the song he finally scaled the pop charts with was "Purple People Eater," a parody of various pop culture crazes including monster movies (some people at the time suggested -- incorrectly -- that the sci-fi/horror classic The Blob, starring Steve McQueen, which was released at around the same time as Wooley's song, was virtually a film of the song). Wooley had to fight to get the song released, and it ultimately became one of the biggest hit singles in the history of MGM Records.
He was unable to follow up the success of "Purple People Eater," however, and it wasn't until 1962 that he had another hit, this time a country chart-topper called "That's My Dad."
In 1958, Wooley was cast in the role of Pete Nolan in the television Western Rawhide, starring Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood, which premiered in January of 1959. He later wrote some scripts for the series as well, and in 1959, in order to fulfill public demand for a recording of the series' title song, he recorded his own version of the Rawhide theme song and an entire album of Western songs, which failed to chart. He later recorded an album of folk-style material that was released in the wake of the MGM wide-screen epic blockbuster movie How the West Was Won, but this also failed to catch on with the public.
His film work continued during this time, and it was because of movie and television commitments that he was unable to record the song "Don't Go Near the Indians." Instead, former movie cowboy/singer Rex Allen recorded it and had a hit with it. In response to his bad luck, Wooley cut a joke parody follow-up to the song, entitled "Don't Go Near the Eskimos," and his alter-ego, Ben Colder was born.
Following his success with "The Purple People Eater," Wooley enjoyed a string of country hits, his most successful being "That's My Pa," which reached No. 1 of Billboard magazine's Hot C&W Sides chart in March 1962.
He is considered by many to be the most likely voice actor for the Wilhelm scream, having appeared on a memo as a voice extra for Distant Drums. This particular recording of a scream has been used by sound effects teams in over 149 films.
Wooley continued occasional television and film appearances through the 1990s, including a notable appearance as Cletus Summers, the principal of Hickory High School in the 1986 film Hoosiers.
In 1998, Wooley was diagnosed with leukemia and spent the next few years in and out of hospitals battling the condition. On September 16, 2003 Sheb Wooley passed away at the age of 82. The previous year Wooley had been honored by Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, who referred to the singer/songwriter/actor as an "American treasure.