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Obituaries

Sheb Wooley, 82; Appeared in Film, TV Westerns, Wrote 'Purple People Eater'

September 18, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Sheb Wooley, who menaced Gary Cooper in "High Noon," played the trail scout on TV's "Rawhide" and scored one of the biggest novelty recording hits of the 1950s with "The Purple People Eater," has died. He was 82.

Wooley, who battled leukemia for five years, died Tuesday after being hospitalized the day before in a medical center in Nashville. He lived in nearby Hendersonville.

In a career that spanned seven decades and ranged from Nashville to Hollywood, Wooley was known as a character actor, songwriter, recording artist and comedian.

He appeared in more than 60 movies, many of them westerns, including "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "The War Wagon," "Distant Drums" and the classic "High Noon," in which he played one of the four outlaws who go gunning for the town marshal played by Cooper.

Wooley also appeared in some 50 television shows, ranging from "The Lone Ranger" to "Murder, She Wrote." And from 1959 to 1965, he played the cattle-drive trail scout, Pete Nolan, on the popular CBS western series "Rawhide," which co-starred Eric Fleming as trail boss Gil Favor and Clint Eastwood as his second-in-command, Rowdy Yates. Wooley also wrote several episodes of the series.

But it was as a singer and songwriter that many knew Wooley best.

He had a decade of singing and writing country and pop songs behind him when he wrote and recorded the silly, Sputnik-era pop song that became his biggest hit.

"The Purple People Eater," with lyrics that included "It was a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater," spent six weeks at No. 1 and sold 3 million copies in 1958.

"The Space Age was upon us," Wooley recalled in a 1982 Associated Press interview. "Everyone was thinking about rockets and wondering if maybe we would find people up there. I still wonder if we will."

Wooley got the idea for "The Purple People Eater," he once recalled, "when a songwriter friend of mine told me his son had come home from school with a joke about a people eater from space. I wrote the song in a matter of minutes -- just dashed it off as a sort of afterthought."

Wooley's label, MGM Records, did not want him to record the wacky song when he first sang it with his own guitar accompaniment.

"They did not like it," Linda Dotson, Wooley's wife and longtime manager, said Wednesday. "But he liked it. And at the end of a recording session he had 30 minutes left, so he went on and recorded it."

When Wooley turned over a tape of the song to Dean Kaye, his producer at MGM Records, Kaye "played it to the kids in the office," Dotson said. "When he returned from lunch, everybody on the floors were gathered listening to it and he said, 'Hey, maybe this is something.' "

"The Purple People Eater," Dotson said, was "just one of those once-in-a-lifetime things."

Rex Allen's hit 1962 recording of "Don't Go Near the Indians" -- a song Wooley had been pitched first but had declined to record -- inspired him to write and record a parody: "Don't Go Near the Eskimos," which he recorded under the suitably icy name of Ben Colder and sang in a comically inebriated voice.

It was the first in a string of popular song parodies and other humorous songs Wooley wrote and recorded as his drunken alter ego, Ben Colder. Among them: "Talk Back Blubbering Lips," "Sunday Morning Fallin' Down," "Harper Valley PTA [Later That Same Day]," "The Happiest Squirrel in the Whole USA" and "Fifteen Beers Ago."

In 1968, the Country Music Assn. gave Wooley its Comedian of the Year Award.

A year later, he became an original cast member of "Hee Haw," the long-running country music comedy variety series, for which he wrote the theme song.

Born Shelby F. Wooley on his parents' farm near Erick, Okla., on April 10, 1921, he learned to ride horses as a child and rode in rodeos as a teenager. He also began playing the guitar and by 15 had formed his own band, "The Plainview Melody Boys," in which he played guitar and sang. Wooley even managed to land his group a weekly local radio show in Elk City, Okla.

Wooley, who was ineligible for the draft for medical reasons during World War II, moved to Nashville after the war and signed his first recording contract, with Bullet Records.

He later hosted a Fort Worth-based country music radio show, "Sheb Wooley and the Calumet Indians," before moving to Hollywood.

Wooley was spotted by a Warner Bros. talent scout while appearing in a play and made his movie debut in the 1950 film "Rocky Mountain," starring Errol Flynn.

Wooley told the Los Angeles Times in 1960 that he came out to Hollywood to become a singing cowboy, "but when I got here in 1950 they didn't want any singing cowboys, even if you had your own guitar.

"So I got into the other end of the cowboy business and played mostly heavies in my film career."

As a singer, Wooley continued performing on stage until 1999, when his illness finally forced him to quit.

In addition to his wife, Wooley is survived by his two daughters, Christie Wooley of Nashville and Shauna Dotson of London; a brother, Bill Wooley of Ruidosa, N.M.; and two grandchildren.

A public service will be at noon Monday at First Baptist Church of Hendersonville.

Donations may be made in Wooley's memory to the Leukemia Society, c/o Tennessee Oncology Associates, Skyline Medical Center, Nashville, Tenn.

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