Three months ago, I was asked to write the story behind Chicory Tip’s 1972 chart-topper Son of my Father and I noted how hard it was to understand some of the lyrics well, this week there’s another one from nine years previous. It’s the Kingsmen’s cover of Louie Louie. The original seemed harmless enough even though it never saw the light of day in the UK, but the hard-to-understand lyrics maybe have been masking a song with filthy lyrics. The New Yorker newspaper’s headline asked ‘Is This the Dirtiest Song of the Sixties?’ It was deemed so offensive that the F.B.I. launched an 18-month investigation to prove the point. Blimey, they’d have a field day now. Anyway, were they really that bad? Let us find out.
The song began life in 1956 when the Louisiana-born African-American musician Richard Berry wrote the song. Berry was originally a doo-wop singer and had sung with many of the local doo-wop groups of the time including the Whips, the Chimes, the Crowns and more famously, the Penguins. Richard then formed his own group called The Pharaohs and, in 1957, recorded his song for the Flip record label. He once admitted that for the intro he had been heavy inspired by a song called El Loco Cha Cha as recorded by The Rhythm Rockers whom Berry had once also sang with. The song was made famous in the States by the band leader René Touzet. Touzet had recorded it on his album Broadway To Havana and, oddly, the composer credit is Rosendo Ruiz Jr.
Not all of Berry’s lyrics are his own either; according to the Flemish writer Arnold Reypens on his Originals website, Berry admits lyrical influence from One for My Baby (And One More for The Road) first recorded by Fred Astaire in 1943 for the film The Sky’s the Limit, the 1946 song Run Joe by Louis Jordan and also the 1956 song Havana Moon by Chuck Berry. All these combinations gave us Louie Louie.
Chuck Berry sings ‘Me all alone with jug of rum, me stand and wait for boat to come’ whilst Berry sings, ‘Fine little girl she wait for me, me catch the ship for cross the sea. Louie Jordan’s song starts with Loey, Loey which is what influenced the riff and title. Berry later sings, ‘Me see Jamaica moon above’ which, in its patois, was influenced by Nat King Cole in his 1949 song Calypso Blues.
Before the Kingsmen recorded it, there was a version by the Seattle rock group Rockin’ Robin Roberts & The Wailers in 1961 then two years later, The Surfaris and Paul Revere & The Raiders laid down their versions, but it was the Kingsmen who flew with it reaching number two in the States and very popular on Pirate radio suggesting it should have done better than its number 26 peak.
The Kingsmen hail from Portland, Oregon. They formed in 1957 when drummer Lynn Easton asked singer Jack Ely to join him at a gig. The pair performed at a few functions then decided to form a proper band where they added guitarist Mike Mitchell, bass player Bob Nordby and keyboard player Don Gallucci. After the initial success of Louie Louie, Easton took over as lead singer on all further songs.
The general story of the song from Berry’s clear vocals tells the story of a man who spends three days at sea journeying to Jamaica to see his girl. He sings, ‘It won’t be long, me see my love, me take her in my arms and then I tell her I-I never leave again’. But the Kingsmen’s version is far more indecipherable thus indicating something clandestine. When Ely was asked about this he denied that he’d sung anything untoward adding that he sung far away from the microphone, which caused the fuzzy sound, and that the notoriety was initiated by the record company. On a personal note, if I had been asked to comment at the time, I probably would have said he sounded like he’d had one pint too many, but that’s all. It transpired that the microphone used in the studio was one that hung from the ceiling and really was too high to pick up a clear sound. Also, the musicians were in close proximity and playing loudly which also obscured the vocal sound.
The F.B.I. were not convinced. It was the governor of Indiana, Matthew Welsh, who seemed to instigate the investigation by calling the song ‘pornographic’ and advised all official broadcasters across his state to ban it. The F.B.I. launched the investigation by asking numerous technically-minded people across many States to see what they could come up with. These people listened to song forward, backwards, sped up, slowed down, you name it but nothing was conclusive. The Federal Communications Commission of the United States of America got involved and eventually concluded the it was all a prank by a college student who had written or sung some obscene lyrics to the song but were never published. Their statement said; “For approximately two years her company (The F.B.I.) has been receiving unfounded complaints concerning the recording of Louie Louie. She advised that to the best of her knowledge, the trouble was started by an unidentified college student, who made up a series of obscene verses for Louie Louie and then sold them to fellow students. It is her opinion that a person can take any 45 RPM recording and reduce its speed to 33 RPM and imagine obscene words, depending upon the imagination of the listener.”
The song cost just $50 to record, but how much the F.B.I. spent on trying to find something that wasn’t there is unknown. After Ely left the band, Easton would mime to Ely’s lyrics. Ely, however, later tried to capitalise on his 15 minutes of fame by sticking to a winning formula and recording similar sounding songs like Louie Louie 66 and Louie Go Home, but that winning formula failed him this time.
Many have covered the song including the Rockin’ Berries, The Kinks, Toots & the Maytals, the Fat Boys, the Pretenders, Ike and Tina Turner and Otis Redding. There was version my Motorhead which scaled the heights of number 75 in 1978, but the biggest UK hit was in 1999 when The Three Amigos took a dance version to number 15.
Jack Ely, who turned to religion and also became a Christian Scientist, died in 2015 at the age of 71, the cause is not officially known, but his son, Sean Ely, said he believed his father suffered from skin cancer. Richard Berry died of heart failure in 1997 at the age of 61 and Mike Mitchell passed away on April 16 this year. If you’re wondering how rich he was with all manner of people recording his song, the answer is, he wasn’t. In 1959, he sold the rights to four of his songs, including Louie Louie, to the owner of Flip records for the measly sum of $750. His reason was that he wanted to buy an engagement ring for his future wife.