By Steve Seymour
It was urban legend around Escanaba. Sam the Sham, the musician who wrote "Wooly Bully," Billboard's record of the year for 1965, had performed here. Details, however, were sketchy until a few weeks ago.
That's when Bob Anzalone, bass player for local band the Riot Squad during the 1960s, came around to show me his scrap book of music memorabilia. On the last page, Anzalone had tucked away a poster he saved from that fabled Sam show.
Possibly a one-of-a-kind item, the 17 by 23 inch poster was folded, unfortunately, but still revealed details that otherwise would probably have been lost. The poster is dominated by a black and white promotional photograph of Sam and the Pharaohs, taken in 1966 by their label, MGM Records. Sam is shown surrounded by his group who have matching shirts and the mop-top haircuts popular at the time.
Texas-born singer Domingo Samudio took Sam the Sham as his stage name and made "Wooly Bully" a phenomenon. The song was an international mega-hit, selling three million copies. It was nominated for a Grammy Award and became the first American single to sell a million copies since the Beatles and their British counterparts invaded our shores the year before. Billboard charted the single longer than any other record released that year.
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs' appearance in Escanaba took place on Easter Monday, April 11, 1966 at Club A Go-Go. Billed as a teen recreation center, the club was owned by Gene Smiltneck, who went on to promote numerous music groups through his business, Bands Unlimited.
Smiltneck recalled he was looking for a "big name" music act to perform at his club, which was located at 2000 Ludington St. He lined-up Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs through a national booking agency because they were available for the planned budget and date. For a fee of $2,000, a substantial sum at the time, the group was signed to play gigs in Green Bay and Escanaba over the Easter holiday weekend.
Sam's Wisconsin appearance took place on Saturday, April 9, 1966 at WBAY Auditorium, 115 S. Jefferson St. in downtown Green Bay, one of the area's largest venues. The opening act for both shows was Escanaba rock band Beat Inc. which included Hank and Corky Mroczkowski, on bass and lead guitar, respectively; drummer Jim Lewis and Bruce Douglas on keys. Douglas said Beat Inc. may have had an advantage in getting the gig because they owned a Farfisa organ. Sam the Sham probably required that keyboards, amps and a sound system be provided for them, Douglas surmised.
Following a day off for Easter, Sam and his group repeated their performance to a packed house at the club situated on the corner of Ludington and 20th St., in the building where Kobas Electric is now located. Teenagers buying their tickets in advance got to see a national act for $2, while those waiting until the day of the show paid $3 at the door.
Certainly the highlight of the night was hearing Sam launch into the introduction of "Wooly Bully," with the words "Uno, dos, one, two, tres, quatro...." Douglas said, "I remember they did a much better job than we did, even with our 'inexpensive' equipment."
Sam's appearance in Escanaba came as his Tex-Mex group continued to rack up hits. They enjoyed Top 40 entries with "Ju Ju Hand" and "Ring Dang Doo" in 1965, but their first single for1966, "Red Hot," a rockabilly song first recorded by Billy "The Kid" Emerson in 1955, barely cracked the Top 100.
At this point Sam and his band had recorded, but not released, "Lil' Red Riding Hood," which would became their second million selling song in a year. "They told us they had recently cut a new album but couldn't say much about it," Douglas, who now lives in Minneapolis, recalled.
The group which performed in Escanaba was actually Sam's second group of Pharaohs. In late 1965, the Pharaohs of "Wooly Bully" fame left Sam in a monetary dispute. They were replaced by a band from New York City called Tony Gee and the Gypsys, who became the new Pharaohs. This group which included bass player Tony "Butch" Gerace, Frankie Carabetta on sax, drummer Billy Bennett and guitarist Andy Kuha, recorded "Lil' Red Riding Hood," and appeared in Escanaba with Sam.
Smiltneck, now a Green Bay resident, was complimentary about the Pharaohs' frontman. "Sam was very personable and spent quite a bit of time after the show, talking with the patrons."
Hank Mroczkowski recalls conversing with Sam after the performance as well as Carabetta, whom he was eager to talk to because they both played the saxophone. Anzalone had his poster of the show autographed by fellow bassist Gerace who wrote in pencil: "Best Wishes, Tony of the Pharaohs (bass guitar)."
In the months following their Escanaba show Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs continued to tour. By Aug. 6, 1966, "Lil' Red Riding Hood," was ranked No. 1 on the Cashbox magazine chart of top singles.
Decades later, royalties for "Wooly Bully" continue to roll in for Sam, who still lives in Texas and makes his living as a motivational speaker with an occasional gig thrown in for old time's sake.
Smiltneck, who later changed his name to Gene Michaels, remembered the Sam the Sham show as the biggest event at his Club A Go-Go. "It was a great night for Escanaba."