From Rodeo Rider to ‘Purple People Eater’ Star: The Wild Journey of Sheb Wooley (AKA Ben Colder)

by Donald Jacobs

…shuffle…shuffle…shuffle…THUD!  Hello wall… I didn’t see you standing there… Thus begins the song Hello Walls no 2 (a parody of the hit country western tune Hello Walls written by Willie Nelson and first recorded by Faron Young). Performed by Ben Colder the comedic alter ego of Sheb Wooley, the song goes on to describe the drunken Colder’s experience of entering the wrong house after a night of hard drinking. This novelty song is part and parcel of the many and varied career of the man known as both Sheb Wooley and Ben Colder.

Shelby Fredrick “Sheb” Wooley (April 10, 1921 – September 16, 2003) was born in Erik City located in Beckham County, Oklahoma. He was the third son of William C. Wooley and Ora E. Wooley. Census records list William only as a farmer, however it is likely that the family had horses as Sheb learned to ride at an early age eventually becoming a successful working cowboy and rodeo rider.

At the outset of World War II Sheb attempted to join the armed forces but was turned down due to his many injuries incurred whilst working in the rodeo. He worked in the oil industry and as a welder, but having developed a talent for music in his teens (playing on local radio with his band The Plainview Melody Boys at the age of 15) he started a recording career in 1945. Upon moving to Fort Worth Texas in 1946 he supported himself by working as a country and western musician, recording music and traveling with a band around the south and southwest. He branched into different styles of music including country, western swing, pop, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. He eventually began fusing rhythm and blues with western swing, but settled finally into what became known as the Nashville sound (a polished and elaborately produced form of country and western music). He also became known for recording many novelty songs as himself and as his alter ego Ben Colder.

In 1958 Wooley recorded a rock and roll novelty song called The Purple People Eater. According to Wooley, MGM records rejected the song at first, as it was not the type of music they wanted to be identified with. An acetate dubplate of the song was sent to MGM Records’ New York office and it soon became popular with the office’s young people. The higher ups at MGM soon noticed the large amount of interest their younger employees had for the song, reconsidered their decision and released it. The song utilized tape manipulation inspired by the David Saville single Witch Doctor and garnered Wooley considerable fame and notoriety. The song reached No. 1 in the Bilboard pop charts in 1958 from June 9 to July 14, it reached number 1 in Canada. It reached No. 12 overall in the UK Singles Chart, and topped the Australian chart as well.

Sheb also had a considerable career in movies and television. Appearing as a regular on Hee Haw in the late 60s and early 70s, he was the writer of the theme song for the show. Some notable films he appeared in include: Rio Bravo, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Hoosiers. He is also credited with creating the Wilhelm Scream a stock sound effect first used in the 1951 film Distant Drums that has been used in many notable movies including every one of the original Star Wars films.

Sheb continued to perform nationally and internationally until his death in 2003 from leukemia. His last written song was recorded only 4 days before his death. He died September 16 2003 in Nashville Tennessee and is entombed at Hendersonville Memorial Gardens in Hedersonville Tennessee.


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