The Purple People Eater

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"The Purple People Eater"
Single by Sheb Wooley
B-side I Can't Believe You're Mine
Released June 1958
Format 7 inch 45 R.P.M.
Genre Pop/Novelty/R&B/Comedy rock
Length 2:11
Label MGM
Writer(s) Sheb Wooley
Sheb Wooley chronology
"I Found Me an Angel" / "So Close to Heaven"
(1958)
"The Purple People Eater" / "I Can't Believe You're Mine"
(1958)
"The Chase" / "Monkey Jive"
(1958)

"The Purple People Eater" is a novelty song written and performed by Sheb Wooley, which reached #1 in the Billboard pop charts in 1958.

Composition[edit]

"The Purple People Eater" tells how a strange creature (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.[1]

The creature isn't necessarily purple but rather it 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"
[2][3][4]

However, the creature also claims that the reason he chooses not to eat the narrator is because the narrator is "so tough", as opposed to the simple fact that the narrator is not purple, thus excluding him from the creature's stated diet.

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.[1]

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 recorded at a reduced speed.[1] (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.

Recordings[edit]

The Sheb Wooley version crossed to the Billboard R&B listings, and while it did not make Billboard's country chart, it reached #4 on the Cashbox country listing. Jimmy Buffett produced and recorded a version of the song for the motion picture Contact (1997).

According to Wooley, MGM Records initially rejected the song, saying that it was not the type of music that they wanted to be identified with. An acetate of the song reached MGM Records' New York office. The acetate became popular with the office's young people. Up to 40 or 50 people would listen to the song at lunchtime. The front office noticed, reconsidered their decision, and decided to release the song.[5]

A cover version recorded by British comedian Barry Cryer reached #1 in the Finnish charts after contractual reasons prevented Wooley's version being released in Scandinavia.[6]

Popularity[edit]

The enduring popularity of the song led to the nicknaming of the highly effective Minnesota Vikings defensive line of the 1970s, whose team colors include purple.[7]

From 1982, major UK toy manufacturer Waddingtons marketed a children's game inspired by the song. Players competed to remove tiny "people" from the rubber Purple People Eater shell, using tweezers on a wire loop which activated an alarm if coming into contact with its metal jaws.[8]

The character was used as the basis for a feature film in 1988, with a cast including Neil Patrick Harris, Ned Beatty, Shelley Winters, Thora Birch, Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Wooley himself.

The Hagen-Renaker ceramics company of California created a figurine of the Purple People Eater as part of its 1958-9 "Little Horribles" line. As mentioned above, the design takes its cue from a misinterpretation of the lyrics, coloring the creature purple. The figure was a best-seller.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c "Purple, Man, Purple". Time. July 7, 1958. Retrieved July 1, 2009. 
  2. ^ [1] Behrends, Ehrhard, "Five minute mathematics." AMS Bookstore, 2008. ISBN 0-8218-4348-6, ISBN 978-0-8218-4348-2. Page 77. Discusses this article, and notes lack of associativity in English. Retrieved April 24, 2009.
  3. ^ [2] Pulfer, Mike, "Ask a stupid question." Cincinnati Enquirer, March 25, 2002. Says it should have been written "purple-people eater" to make clearer the apparent intent that "purple" refers to the people eaten. Retrieved April 24, 2009.
  4. ^ "Some records are meant to make you bust a gut." Beaumont Enterprise, June 7, 2002 (Newsbank Article ID: 0206070061, subscription) Says the "flying purple people eater ... ate purple people." Retrieved April 24, 2009.
  5. ^ Production Notes, Episode 16, Incident of the Misplaced Indians, Rawhide -- The Complete First Season, Region 1, Disc 5, CBS DVD, 2006
  6. ^ Solsoft – www.solsoft.co.uk. "Barry Cryer OBE – Comedy Scriptwriter, Comedian & Broadcaster". Gordonpoole.com. Retrieved 2010-11-23. 
  7. ^ "The Purple People Eaters". Bob Lurtsema's Viking Update. Retrieved July 1, 2009. 
  8. ^ [3] Waddington's 1982 board game trademark registration at trademarks.justicia.com retrieved 2012-05-28.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
"All I Have to Do Is Dream" by The Everly Brothers
Billboard Top 100 number-one single (Sheb Wooley version)
June 9, 1958 (6 weeks)
Succeeded by
"Yakety Yak" by The Coasters