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September 30, 2011

For six weeks in 1958 this novelty tune featuring a one-eyed, one-horned creature was the #1 record on the charts in America. The song was written and recorded by Sheb Wooley (1921-2003), a Western band leader with an MGM recording contract. Wooley also had an acting career, appearing in some 50 movies (he was the killer Ben Miller in High Noon) and on television as Pat Nolan in Rawhide (CBS, 1959-1965) and in the cast of Hee Haw (CBS, 1969) for which he also wrote the theme song. A feature film based on the song was released in 1988 starring Neil Patrick Harris, Ned Beatty, Shelley Winters and Dustin "Screech" Diamond with guest appearances by Sheb Wooley, Chubby Checker and Little Richard.

"The Purple People Eater" tells how a strange monster (described as a "one-eyed, one-horned, flying, purple people eater") descends to Earth because it wants to be in a rock 'n' roll band. The premise of the song came from a joke told by the child of a friend of Wooley's; Wooley finished composing it within an hour.

The monster isn't necessarily purple but rather the monster eats purple people, as shown in the following excerpt:

"I said Mr Purple People Eater, what's your line?
He said eating purple people, and it sure is fine
But that's not the reason that I came to land
I wanna get a job in a rock 'n roll band"

The ambiguity of the song was present when it was originally played on the radio. In responses to requests from radio DJs, listeners drew pictures that show a "people eater" colored purple.

The voice of the purple people eater is a sped up recording, giving it a voice similar to, but not quite as high-pitched or as fast, as Ross Bagdasarian's "Witch Doctor", another hit from earlier in 1958; and "The Chipmunk Song" which was released late in 1958. (The Chipmunks themselves eventually covered "Purple People Eater" for their 1998 album The A-Files: Alien Songs.) The sound of a toy saxophone was produced in a similar fashion as the saxophone was originally played at a reduced speed.(In the Chipmunks' cover version, there is a longer sax solo, and it was recorded and played at its normal speed.)

The song invokes phrases from several other hit songs from that era: "Short Shorts", by The Royal Teens, and "Tequila", by The Champs, both from earlier in 1958; and "Tutti Frutti" from 1955.

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