Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs

The Best of Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs [Polygram]

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Like the Rolling Stones' greatest-hits collection Big Hits: High Tides and Green Grass, this album is an ideal souvenir of a well-loved '60s group that appeals from both the visual and musical standpoint. In the days before music videos, these album covers with their collections of photos were sometimes the only visual information fans would have about the bands they were listening to. This album comes in a gatefold cover, sturdy as all get out, with a stunningly warm job of color printing. The various shots of Sam the Sham and his Pharoahs are appealing for a variety of reasons (the guy with the bugged-out eyes who looks like Peter Lorre, for instance). Domingo Samudio (that's Sam) comes across as an amusing bloke, and even if one didn't find these fellows fun to look at pictures of, then there's the subject of the clothes they are wearing. Some fashion mavens have expressed great delight at both the paisley shirts worn on this cover and the Beatles boots the fellows use to stomp a circle around a tree on the back cover. Now moving on to something much more important, there is the music. The biggest fans of this band would have to agree that although the output is high quality, there wasn't all that much material recorded by the group to begin with. When really large amounts of it are assembled, the expected existence of a few weak tracks tends to diminish the power of the really good stuff, a criticism that was quite fairly made of later, longer CD compilations of Sam the Sham. In contrast, the band can hardly be accused of wearing out its welcome during this program of approximately 30 minutes in length. One could easily conceive of adding a few more choice tracks from other albums of this band to make this a really generous serving. On the other hand, the brevity of the program greatly increases its impact. The selection favors the band's later period, marked by songs with more sophisticated construction. Sam the Sham was apparently never happy that the group was considered "just" a novelty band while other '60s bands were being elevated to the position of philosophical overlords. His recordings were always marked by a careful selection of material chosen from quite a wide range of songwriters, plus a few of his own tunes. Launched into stardom by "Wooly Bully," a song he wrote about his pet cat, he seems to have pushed at the boundaries attached to this new fame by looking for the most interesting material possible. The two songs based on fairy tales, "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Hair on My Chinny Chin Chin," were received with delight by the hit parade audience and many a radio was cranked up as soon as Sam's voice entered with the a cappella question "Who's that I see walkin' in these woods?" These songs were both the work of Ronald Blackwell, a Nashville-based writer who was also turning out country hits. The type of cooking R&B covers that were the meat and potatoes of this group are represented by covers such as "Red Hot" and "Mystery Train." One could have chosen any similar cover from any of the band's albums, all with consistent quality. Most bands playing the college bar or fraternity party circuit would just love to be able to play like this, so practice, practice. The more melodic-style soul of "Ready or Not" is also something Samudio pulls off with ease. There's also the typically dark, cynical atmosphere of a J.D. Loudermilk song, "I Wish It Were Me," an effective change of pace. The more the leader puts his own personality into the songs, the better. His own point-of-view is refreshing; for example, his story of being "in" with "The Out Crowd." He can be something of an actor, delivering a vocal as if playing a role. "El Toro del Goro" is the tale of a peace-loving bull, and is done so well that the listener will feel as if they've watched a vintage cartoon by the time it is over. The mariachi trumpets are a nice touch here. For the most part, instrumentation is one of the standard old-school band lineups: drums, bass, saxophone, guitar, and the leader on his trademark cheesy organ. There were changes in band membership between the sessions that produced these recordings, but the album's notes make no attempt to clarify who might be playing on which song. In fact, none of the bandmembers are identified at all other than the leader, which is certainly not a situation the members of the Rolling Stones would have put up with their greatest package. Parents looking for '60s music to toss at young infants (not literally) will realize that the subject matter of some of these songs will make Sam the Sham tremendously endearing to young children, up until the age when they start to find Mick Jagger's pout more appealing.

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