Sam The Sham

My lunch with Sam the Sham.

Casey Monahan, the director of the Texas Music Office, called me the other day and invited me to join him and Domingo Samudio aka the Sam The Sham, leader of the Pharoahs and composer and performer of the musical classic "Wooly Bully" for lunch at Hoover's. Accompanying Sam was his friend Ron Rogers, the keeper of the flame for Freddy Fender, and Rose Reyes, director of marketing for the Austin Convention and Visitor Bureau, and Annette Fradera who does song placements for films including Tommy Lee Jones' "Three Burials of Meliquiades Estrada" and an upcoming documentary on the killing of Ezequial Hernandez, the Redford, Texas goatherder who was shot by U.S. Marines patrolling the border, who mistook the 17 year old American citizen for an illegal alien.

Sam the Sham

Domingo bka (best known as) Sam was a pleasure to break bread with. A resident of Memphis for the past thirty years, he came to Austin to prepare for his appearance at the Austin Music Awards in March, the annual party and show that is the unofficial kickoff of the music portion of the 21st South By Southwest.

He looked great, talked a humble but wizened game, and charmed the whole table. Rarely have I met someone from the music business who has such a well-centered grip on his life and his music achievements.

He recalled growing up in West Dallas, the same stomping grounds as Bonnie and Clyde, where his parents and grandparents had been working the bottomlands of an expansive tract known as Trinity Farms that extended from downtown to Texas Stadium in Irving ever since they fled the Mexican Revolution of 1910. He speculated that Trinity Farms may be the source of the song “El Rancho Grande.” Working the cottonfields as a boy, he could sing and make people laugh so well that other pickers picked his cotton for him, just to keep him entertaining them.

Sam radiates happiness, a state of being he attributes to finding the Lord. And he’s as funny as he was when Doug Sahm first described seeing him on the Sunset Strip of Los Angeles, sitting on top of the back seat of a convertible cruising the Strip, wearing his turban, screaming his head off, full of wild joy.

Sam the Sham

When I said I was sorry after he told me he lost his mother when he was only three, he didn’t miss a beat. “Don’t worry, you didn’t kill her,” he grinned.

He told stories about Ed Sullivan cancelling a booking when a conflict in the Middle East broke out. “He thought we were A-rabs.”

He'd left Dallas and was working on offshore oil rigs based in Louisiana when he hit it big. He talked about coming from the Delta the root source of all music to New York arriving at La Guardia Airport at the height of Beatlemania, when the single “Wooly Bully” knocked the Fab Four off the top of the charts. Asked by a reporter what he thought about the Beatles, he made a statement that even had the band worried. “You steal my dog, you take it home, clean it up, dress it up real nice and try and sell it back to me. You think I’m going to buy it? You think I’m afraid?

Ron Rogers, who was squiring Sam the Sham around Austin, is working on a Freddy Fender museum in San Benito and collaborating with Bill Crawford on a biography of Freddy. Bill was my collaborator on the Stevie Ray Vaughan book and wrote the book on Border Radio with Gene Fowler. He’s one of the few gabachos who understands and appreciates the beauty of the Texas-Mexico borderlands.

When Casey almost spilled his glass of water by unknowlingly knocking it over with his elbow, Sam saved the day, reaching his hand across the table with his trademark advisory, “Watch it, now, watch it now” straight out of “Wooly Bully.”

Ron gave me a copy of Sam’s latest CD, a curriculum vitae of Sam that he autographed, and a beret with a Sam the Sham autograph logo.
The CV has a poem explaining how he sees the success he achieved in entertainment and elsewhere with this nugget, Early Conclusion:

Life is Swift & Death is Sure;
When it’s your time;
There ain’t no cure.

Fame & Fortune fade away
But when God smiles,
It’s a sunny day.

(No “Po” Story Here)

The House of Sham has a website

I haven’t taken off the beret yet.

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