SEPTEMBER 16, 2003 – Singer/songwriter/actor SHEB WOOLEY (b. April 10, 1921 in Erick, Oklahoma as Shelby Fredrick Wooley) dies of leukemia at age 82 after being hospitalized the day before at Skyline Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee and was buried in Hendersonville Memory Gardens in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
He was survived by his wife Linda Dotson, and two daughters Chrystie and Shauna.Best known for his 1958 novelty song “The Purple People Eater,” he was also known as a versatile actor who played Ben Miller, brother of Frank Miller in the film “High Noon,” and played Travis Cobb in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and also had a co-starring role as scout Pete Nolan in the television series “Rawhide.” Wooley is also credited as the voice actor who produced the famous sound effect, the Wilhelm scream.Wooley was born and was raised on a farm. He learned to ride horses at an early age and was a working cowboy and rodeo rider. He was competing in local rodeos before he was ten years old, and by the time he was a teenager was one of the best young riders on the circuit. Music was also one of his interests, and Wooley got his first guitar when his father swapped a shotgun for the instrument.
The family was poor, and living was very tough during the 1930s and more than once their crops were virtually blown away by the dry dust bowl winds.Wooley led his own country band in high school, but music didn’t offer the prospect of a living, and he made his living for a time working the oil fields of Oklahoma as a welder. As with many Oklahomans looking for a better future, Wooley headed to California in the late ’30s and nearly earned a living at a packing plant, moving crates of oranges. By then Wooley was married to Melva Miller, the older cousin of future country music star Roger Miller. When World War II broke out, Wooley found himself labeled 4-F (ineligible for military service) because of injuries he’d suffered as a rodeo rider, and he spent much of the war working in defense plants, and worked in the oil industry and as a welder.In the 1940s, Wooley took an interest in his wife’s young cousin Roger Miller who also grew up in Erick, Oklahoma. Wooley taught Miller how to play guitar chords and bought him a fiddle.In 1945, he made his first records for the Bullet label in Nashville, and began appearing as a singer/guitarist on WLAC; the job paid nothing, but allowed him to get paid work elsewhere.
His Bullet sides were cut at WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry, but they saw almost no play or exposure of any kind.A year later he moved to Fort Worth, Texas and got a regular spot sponsored by Calumet Baking Powder. In 1949 he married Edna Ethel Bunt in Fort Worth, and at the suggestion of a friend at WSM, Wooley decided to take the plunge and head for California in hope of getting some movie work. When they crossed the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine on Christmas Day 1949, it was snowing. Around this same time, he was signed as a songwriter to Hill & Range, the publishing company, which, in turn, led to his being signed by the newly founded MGM Records in 1950. MGM already had a legendary figure in its roster, in the person of Hank Williams, but country music was booming, and there was room for as many worthwhile talents as the label could find.He also took acting lessons in the hope of getting some work on the screen. Wooley succeeded more than he could have hoped in this capacity, appearing in small parts in 40 feature films, beginning with “Rocky Mountain” (Errol Flynn’s final Western) in 1949. He also played an important supporting role in the historical drama “Little Big Horn” (1951). His most notable screen came in the classic “High Noon” (1952), in which he played Ben Miller, the leader of the outlaw gang gunning for town marshal Gary Cooper.
Wooley appeared four times in the syndicated Western series “The Range Rider” starring Jock Mahoney and Dick Jones. He appeared in a 1953 episode of the “The Lone Ranger” entitled “Wake of War” and another episode entitled “Message to Fort Apache” in 1954. In 1958, he played Baxter in the movie “Terror in a Texas Town.” He also appeared twice in the ABC Western series “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” and five times between 1951 and 1955 in another syndicated series “The Adventures of Kit Carson.” He also guest starred in “The Cisco Kid” in the role of Bill Bronson and as Harry Runyon in the episode “The Unmasking” of the CBS Western “My Friend Flicka.” He also acted in the films “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Giant.” Wooley co-starred as Cletus, the principal in the Gene Hackman film “Hoosiers.”In 1954, he played outlaw Jim Younger in the syndicated Western series “Stories of the Century.” He also appeared in “The Man Without a Star” (1955) and “Rio Bravo” (1959) starring John Wayne. Wooley’s big break came when he was cast as the drover Pete Nolan in the CBS western “Rawhide” (1959–1966) with Eric Fleming, Clint Eastwood, and Paul Brinegar, 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.In the late 1950s, Wooley embarked on a recording career.
It wasn’t until 1958, however, that he had a hit of any consequence, 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 #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 followed with a series of lesser novelty hits. Wooley wrote the theme song for the long-running television show “Hee Haw.” In the UK, he enjoyed a minor hit with the comedy single “Luke The Spook” b/w “My Only Treasure” a ballad in the country and western tradition. 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 created a new, inebriated comic persona to present it. “Ben Colder” was born with “Don’t Go Near the Eskimos,” and for the rest of his career Wooley in a manner anticipating the lot of David Johansen/Buster Poindexter had to split his time between appearances as “straight” country/cowboy singer Sheb Wooley and drunken comic Ben Colder. (Some of the other names that Wooley had considered for this persona, according to one source, were “Ben Freezin” and “Klon Dyke”).Wooley also had a string of country hits, his “That’s My Pa” reaching #1 of Billboard’s Hot C&W Sides chart in March 1962. He was a regular on “Hee Haw” as the drunken country songwriter Ben Colder, and continued to release music and perform as Ben Colder. Wooley performed using his own name, as well. Wooley had intended to record the song “Don’t Go Near The Indians”, but he was delayed by an acting job.
Meanwhile, Rex Allen recorded the song and it was a hit. Wooley said he did not mind; he would do the sequel. His version was “Don’t Go Near the Eskimos”, about a boy in Alaska named Ben Colder (had never “been colder”).His single “Hootenanny Hoot” was an Australian top 10 hit in December, 1963; “The Love-in” (1967), was an acerbic commentary on the 1960s’ counterculture. In 1969, when the country music showcase Hee Haw went on the air, Wooley became the show’s resident songwriter, providing the series’ comic musical numbers.Wooley is credited as the voice actor for the Wilhelm scream, having appeared on a memo as a voice extra for “Distant Drums” and later confirmed by his widow. This particular scream recording has been used by sound effects teams in over 300 films. Wooley continued occasional television and film appearances through the 1990s, including an appearance as Cletus Summers, principal of Hickory High School in the 1986 film “Hoosiers.” He appeared as a cavalry sergeant in the 1985 film “Silverado.” His music career was so successful, he continued using the name Ben Colder for 40 years, and went on to have several more hits including “Almost Persuaded No. 2,” and in 1968 the Colder persona was voted Comedian of the Year. Wooley continued recording under both guises into the 1980s. One of his last recordings was “Shaky Breaky Car” (which parodied the song “Achy Breaky Heart”), although his last chart single in either persona dated back to 1971. The year before his death Wooley had been honored by Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson,