Sheb Wooley — of “Purple People Eater” Fame — Dead at 82

Singer, songwriter and actor Sheb Wooley — who also recorded a series of parody hits as Ben Colder — died Tuesday (Sept. 16) at Skyline Medical Center in Nashville. He was 82. Wooley had suffered from leukemia for the past five years, his widow, Linda Dotson, told CMT.com.

However, she said he had been strong enough to go with her to Johnny Cash’s wake on Sunday (Sept. 14). While there, she continued, he seemed to falter: “It was like God laid His hand on his shoulder and said, ‘You’ll be the third [country music figure] to go,’” Dotson observed. (TV actor John Ritter, son of Country Music Hall of Fame member Tex Ritter, died the day before Cash.)

Shelby F. Wooley was born April 10, 1921, near Erick, Okla. While a teenager, he worked as a rodeo rider and formed his own band. In the mid-1940s, he performed on radio stations WLAC and WSM in Nashville and subsequently had his own show on the Calumet Radio Network. He signed to Bullet Records in 1946, moving two years later to MGM Records where he remained until 1973. Wooley was a major musical influence on Roger Miller, who was related to him by marriage. Miller was only 11 when Wooley gave him his first fiddle.

Wooley began acting in movies in 1950, appearing first in Rocky Mountain with Errol Flynn. In 1952, he played killer Ben Miller in the Gary Cooper-Grace Kelly classic western, High Noon. Altogether, he acted in more than 60 films, among them Giant (1956) and Hoosiers (1986). Prominent in television acting as well, he played the role of Pete Nolan in the popular Rawhide series from 1959 to 1966.

As a recording artist, Wooley had his first success on the pop charts. His “Are You Satisfied?” barely made a dent in 1955, reaching only the No. 95 spot. But three years later, he unleashed a monster with the novelty tune, “The Purple People Eater.” It went No. 1 on the pop listings and stayed there for six weeks. “That’s My Pa,” another novelty effort in 1962, was his first country hit. It also reached No. 1.

As Ben Colder, Wooley scored six country and five pop hits with such parodies as “Don’t Go Near the Eskimos” (a takeoff on “Don’t Go Near the Indians”), “Still No. 2,” “Almost Persuaded No. 2,” “Detroit City No. 2” and “Harper Valley P.T.A. (Later That Same Day).” His last charted country song came in 1971 with “Fifteen Beers Ago,” a sendup of Conway Twitty’s “Fifteen Years Ago.” Fittingly enough, Wooley wrote the theme song for the Hee Haw TV series. In 1968, the Country Music Association honored him with its comedian of the year award.

On Oct. 9, 2002, then U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee saluted Wooley as an “American treasure” by reading a catalog of his achievements into the Congressional Record. “He never strayed far from his roots,” Thompson said, “and always knew how to rope in an audience.”

Wooley’s funeral will be held Monday (Sept. 22) “at high noon,” Dotson said, at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., and will be open to the public. He is survived by his widow; two daughters, Christie Wooley and Shauna Dotson; and two grandchildren.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.