Sheb Wooley

Singer-songwriter/actor whose hits included 'Purple People Eater'
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Shelby F. Wooley (Sheb Wooley), actor, singer and musician: born Erick, Oklahoma 10 April 1921; married first Beverly Addison (one daughter), second Linda Dotson (one daughter); died Nashville, Tennessee 16 September 2003.

In 1958 a schoolboy told the film actor and songwriter Sheb Wooley a joke: "What has one eye, one horn, is purple, flies and eats people?" The answer was "A purple people eater" and, even though the riddle was as unfunny then as it is now, Wooley wrote a song about it. His recording of "Purple People Eater" topped the US charts for six weeks and sold over three million copies. It has since appeared on countless compilations and the total worldwide sales for this nonsense song are a staggering 100 million.

Wooley was born on a farm in Erick, Oklahoma, in 1921. As an adolescent, he roped steers with his brothers and rode in rodeos; the injuries he thus sustained stopped him from active service during the Second World War and instead he worked in a defence plant.

Whilst still at school, Wooley had persuaded his father to buy him a guitar and he formed a band, the Plainview Melody Boys, for dances. When the war was over, he went to Nashville with his songs. The leading country singer Eddy Arnold heard his songs - and offered him work as a gardener.

However, in 1945 he did record his first songs, "I Can't Live Without You" and "Oklahoma Honky Tonk Girl". Wooley worked on Nashville radio stations and then presented his own show in Fort Worth for Calumet Baking Powder. He formed a western swing band, the Calumet Indians, in which he sang and played fiddle. In 1950 he was given a role in the western film Rocky Mountain, which starred Errol Flynn. When an attractive girl mistook him for Flynn, he took advantage of the mistake, later admitting, "You can imagine I did some of my best acting that night, although I had a hell of a time with the Australian accent."

With his riding abilities, Wooley was ideal for westerns. He appeared in Distant Drums (1951) with Gary Cooper and was featured in two films about General Custer, Little Big Horn (1951) and Bugles in the Afternoon (1952). In 1952 Wooley played Ben Miller, one of the brothers wanting to gun down Gary Cooper in Fred Zinnemann's epoch-making western High Noon. Other westerns included Johnny Guitar (1953), Man Without a Star (1955) and Rio Bravo (1959), with John Wayne and Dean Martin. He appeared in the film musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and the now legendary Giant (1956), with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean.

In 1958 Wooley became a regular member of the cast of Rawhide, a western television series about a cattle drive, starring Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood. Playing the role of Pete Nolan, Wooley remained with the series for several years, writing some of the later scripts. He recorded an album, Songs from the Days of Rawhide (1961) and, in a similar vein, Tales of How the West Was Won (1963).

Wooley kept releasing singles, among them "Cowboys Ought to be Single" (1952), "Blue Guitar" (1954) and "38-24-33" (1955). He also wrote hit singles for Hank Snow ("When Mexican Joe Met Jole Blon", 1953) and Teresa Brewer ("Too Young to Tango", 1954).

In 1958, he had his own best-seller with "Purple People Eater", which used the same speeded-up technique as David Seville's "Witch Doctor". The song underlined the public's fascination with UFOs, Sputniks and monster films. The Big Bopper recorded a follow-up, "The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor", while Wooley performed "Santa and the Purple People Eater" himself.

The MGM record label had been reluctant to release "Purple People Eater" as they wanted to establish Wooley as a serious country artist. He stayed largely in light-hearted vein for his singles, topping the US country charts with "That's My Pa" (1962) and having success with "Laughin' the Blues" (also 1962). He performed in the country music film Hootenanny Hoot (1963), and the following year was voted the Nashville Comedian of the Year.

The Nashville award had come mainly as a result of his alter ego, Ben Colder. In 1962 Wooley had intended to cover Rex Allen's single, "Don't Go Near the Indians", but, as MGM could not arrange a studio booking in time, he rewrote the song as "Don't Go Near the Eskimos" and used the pseudonym Ben Colder. (His other choices were Ben Freezin and Klon Dyke.) He recorded several further singles and albums as the inebriated Colder, with "Almost Persuaded No 2" (1966) becoming a US Top Ten country hit. His funniest album title was Big Ben Strikes Again (1970), and single, "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (also 1970).

In 1969 Wooley wrote the theme music for a new CBS TV country show, Hee Haw, and he performed many times on the programme, either as himself or Ben Colder. He was reunited with Clint Eastwood for a small role in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and also appeared in Starman (1984) with Jeff Bridges and Silverado (1985) with Kevin Kline and John Cleese. He starred alongside Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper in the basketball film Hoosiers (1987), while a film of his song, Purple People Eater, was made in 1988 with Chubby Checker and Little Richard.

Wooley owned property in Tennessee and California, and also owned a farm in New Mexico with one of his brothers. In 1996 he was diagnosed with leukaemia and his health deteriorated from then on. He enjoyed using the internet, setting up a website and communicating with admirers by e-mail. Until recent months, he also visited Tootsie's Lounge in Nashville, where he would talk with fans. He left instructions that his funeral service should be held at "high noon".

Spencer Leigh