In 1958, Sheb Wooley unleashed “The Purple People Eater” from his imagination into the airwaves. The creature has “one long horn, one big eye.” He’s “pigeon-toed, undergrowed.” But when the narrator frets, “Looks like a purple people eater to me!” It begs the questions: To what other purple people eaters can he compare him? Does Wooley’s clarification that he eats purple people – that he’s not necessarily purple himself – mean we’re all off the hook?
Well, we know one thing the Purple People Eater wants – to rock ‘n roll. And it’s safe to say that in 1958, that was a fairly common desire. That year produced a slew of foundational rock hits, like the Royal Teens’ “Short Shorts” and the Champs’ “Tequila.” Over an irresistible boogie-woogie rhythm, the extraterrestrial squeaks references to those two hits – “I like short shorts!” “Tequila!” – as well as the immortal gobbledygook from Little Richard’s 1955 barnstormer “Tutti Frutti.”
Above all, “The Purple People Eater’s” purpose is to make bodies move and tickle funny bones. Here’s where it came from.
From his 1946 recorded debut “Oklahoma Honky-Tonky Gal” up to “The Purple People Eater,” the public primarily knew Wooley for his cowboy songs and hillbilly tunes. He appeared in Western films like 1950’s Rocky Mountain and 1952’s High Noon and TV series like The Lone Ranger. The classic “Wilhelm scream” – the immortal “Aaaagh!” used in films from Star Wars to Indiana Jones to The Lord of the Rings – is believed to be Wooley. (In 1953, he appeared as Private Wilhelm, a character who gets shot with an arrow and emits the scream in 1953’s The Charge at Feather River.)
Amid all his onscreen work, Wooley never stopped writing songs. And the one that took off had nothing to do with six-guns and spurs; it was “The Purple People Eater,” which skewered the musical crazes of the time by envisaging a grotesque space invader taking the bait.
Wooley made “The Purple People Eater”’s alien voice and saxophone solo (played through a horn in his head!) squeaky and high-pitched by recording a normal voice and sax solo and later speeding up the tape. Under his stage name David Seville, songwriter Ross Bagdasarian first used this technique on his 1958 novelty hit “Witch Doctor,” which spawned the virtual band Alvin and the Chipmunks. That same year, the Big Bopper combined Seville’s and Wooley’s characters in the song “Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor,” which was the B-side of his signature single “Chantilly Lace.”
“Purple People Eater” was released in May 1958, and by the week of June 2, 1958, the song hit No. 1 on the Hot 100, where it remained for six weeks. On July 27, Wooley performed it on The Ed Sullivan Show. That year, Judy Garland covered it, adding her own movie-monster-inspired intro: “I was a teenage werewolf / I was a 50-foot woman / And other unidentified flying objects!”
Wooley never had another Hot 100 hit, but “Purple People Eater” has stalked each ensuing decade of pop culture. In 1988, it got its own Disney Channel film, Purple People Eater, about a boy who, by playing the song, inadvertently summons the real-life creature. It also appeared in the soundtracks to 1989’s Parents, 1997’s Contact, and 2009’s Monsters vs. Aliens.
Who knows where our winged hero will go next, blowing it out, knockin’ them dead? Given “The Purple People Eater”’s unlikely longevity, the answer is in the stars.