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In the early 1962 incarnation of The Kingsmen, the four-man group became headliners at the Pypo Club in Seaside, Oregon, about eighty miles west of Portland. “We played the Pypo on a Saturday night and went back Sunday afternoon to pick up our gear,” recalled lead singer Jack Ely. “While we were there, fifteen or twenty teenagers were hanging out, and somebody put this song, "Louie Louie" on the jukebox. Everybody in the room got up and started dancing. I mean everybody. They didn’t care whether they had a partner—they just got up, stood around their tables and started dancing. When the song ended and the jukebox repeated the song, everybody would dance! This happened a number of times. I looked at fellow Kingsmen member Lynn Easton and said, “We’ve got to learn this song!” (1)
The riff duh duh duh, duh duh of the Orange County, California group, the Rhythm Rockers at the Harmony Park Ballroom in Anaheim in the summer of 1956 caught the attention of 21-year-old, singer Richard Berry as he was appearing with the group. “What’s the name of that tune?” asked Berry to Bobby and Barry Rolleras, leaders of the ten-piece band. “That’s El Loco Cha Cha Cha by René Touzet.” The next morning, Berry purchased the record and the tale of Louie Louie was born.
Photo courtesy of GNP Records.
Berry’s day job was with Modern Records where he handled a multitude of duties. Working with arranger/producer Maxwell Davis, Berry learned the music business with on the job training. Songwriting, vocal arrangements and singing on a number of records was part of his job description. It was Berry’s bass voice featured in the background of the Robins’ Riot in Cell Block #9 and the male voice of Henry in Etta James’ The Wallflower (Roll With Me, Henry). (2) Working with other artists just whetted the musical appetite for Berry who desperately wanted to create his own musical path.
One night, Berry reworked parts of El Loco and added lyrics that he scribbled on a paper bag at the Harmony Park dressing room. According to Dave Marsh, Louie Louie was inspired by Chuck Berry’s calypso beat of Havana Moon, the lyrical point of view of Nat King Cole’s Calypso Blues and the conversation of the Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen hit, One for My Baby (And One More for the Road). Berry’s account told the story of a homesick sailor explaining to a bartender named Louie of his desire for a girl he left on his home island. (3)
By the time Berry finished composing Louie in April of 1956, he signed a deal with Flip Records and joined a group named the Pharoahs. Berry and the group recorded Louie Louie in the spring of 1956 at Hollywood Recorders on Santa Monica Boulevard with three other songs — You Are My Sunshine, Somewhere There’s A Rainbow and Sweet Sugar You. After a false start with two previous cuts recorded in 1955, Flip released Sunshine, backed with Louie Louie in April of 1957. “Louie was an afterthought. I didn’t think it would be a hit,” Berry recalled. “Everybody I talked to had a preference of You Are My Sunshine over Louie Louie. (4)
Berry’s vision of Louie included a mixture of Latin and R&B accents hoping to converge the tastes of R&B fans and record buyers of Mexican and Spanish descent. That didn’t sit well with label owner, Max Feirtag. “We don’t want that crap,” Richard recalled. “We want a good R&B-sounding record.” The Latin elements were eliminated. (4)
Louie Louie could only reach regional hit status — up the California Coast to San Francisco. “I used to work up there every weekend. I’d make anywhere from three to four hundred dollars maybe five hundred dollars a week,” Berry recalled. Good money for the mid-50s but the good times didn’t last. With no new hits written and working a number of menial jobs, Richard decided to sell his share of the publishing and songwriting rights to Louie Louie to Fiertag’s publishing company, Limax Music, which already controlled the other half (of the royalties). “I figured, what the hell, I wasn’t getting my royalties anyway,” recalled Berry. “I just thank God I kept my BMI rights (broadcast airplay royalties).” Richard Berry received $750 from Limax Music. For the next 28 years, except for small, semi-annual airplay checks from BMI, that was the only income Louie would bring its creator. (5)
On September 27, 1957, in Seattle, R&B fans gathered at the downtown Eagles Auditorium for an R&B revue featuring Little Junior Parker and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Also listed on the card as the opening act was Richard Berry. When Berry launched into Louie Louie, the crowd picked up the exotic rhythms of the song, hit the dance floor and broke into the latest craze, the cha cha cha. None of this was lost on local musicians attending the show. A simple chord structure and hypnotic beat put the song on the playlist of a number of local bands.
Photo courtesy of Ace Records.
Records were pressed and soon fans were playing Louie Louie in the jukeboxes in every bar in the black community. By the middle of November, the song hit the Top 40 chart of Seattle’s pop station, KOL. Sales of the record were strong through Seattle and Tacoma. Still, it could never gain national traction. But in the Pacific Northwest, Louie Louie was developing legendary status. (6)
The Wailers were a group that formed in Tacoma in 1957 and 1958. They made their name around the Puget Sound area with other local groups all looking for one big break — a big record deal. They seemingly were headed for national fame when their instrumental hit, Tall Cool One, landed on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on May 18, 1959. (7) The label, Golden Crest, issued a follow-up single, Mau Mau, and an LP entitled, The Fabulous Wailers. With no more singles released from the LP, the band became uneasy regarding record company’s future plans for them.
When 1960 rolled around, the Wailers added singer Rockin’ Robin Roberts, in an effort to spark their appeal and head in a new direction. Roberts, who worked in a local record store, would supply the group with records they would learn and then play at their live shows. After a few months, Roberts let the group members know that he wanted sing on a record and the song he chose was Louie Louie. The aggressive Roberts also wanted billing ahead of the band — Rockin’ Robin and the Wailers — a matter that didn’t sit well with other members of the group. After bandleader John Greek was exiled by the local musicians union for “creative bookkeeping entries” and bassist Buck Ormsby joined the group, the Wailers ditched Golden Crest and signed with a new label, Etiquette Records.
With three band members in a partnership of the new label, the Wailers headed into a local Seattle studio in August of 1960 and recorded two songs, Louie Louie and Mary Ann, a cover of the Ray Charles tune. With the billing of the band still a touchy issue, Louie Louie sat in the can for six months as group members bickered. It was only released after Ormsby heard a rival group, the Adventurers, had recorded Louie Louie and were ready to release it after overdubs would be applied. Ormsby had a copy of the Wailers version pressed and took it local KJR radio DJ, Pat O’Day the next day. O’Day loved the tune and hyped it continuously. Working fast, Ormsby rush-ordered pressings of the song which would bear the billing, “Rockin’ Robin Roberts!”
The Wailers (now Roberts) version converted the low-key R&B styling of Richard Berry into a harder rock and roll dance tune. A saxophone solo by Mark Marush that opened the record replaced the tune’s main riff and remained throughout the recording. Background vocals consisting of the duh-duh-duh-duh, duh-duh refrain textured the vocal stylings of Roberts lead. Just before Rich Dangel’s guitar solo, Roberts ad-libbed the line, “Let’s give it to ‘em, right now!” The line would be forever emblazoned on future interpretations of Louie.
The spring and summer of 1961 saw the Wailers’ Louie Louie (although it was credited to Roberts, fans referred the song to the Wailers) sell 15,000 copies in the Puget Sound area. The song also got a boost from Cash Box magazine when their review graded the song “B+” and wrote, “Fine blues vocal by the songster on a catchy ditty that was an awhile-back success by Richard Berry. Roberts receives striking combo support.” (8)
Even with the momentum of strong local sales, the song didn’t catch on nationally. Pat O’Day recalled conversations with Roberts. “He used to call me on the phone and say, ‘How can we make that thing break through?’ He said, ‘Isn’t the evidence there, Pat, that it’s a hit?’ And I’d say, ‘Robin, it’s there in spades. What we need is a record company that will believe in it.’” (8)
Eventually, Liberty Records signed on for a national distribution deal. But Liberty never truly got behind the tune. “Liberty took the position they were doing O’Day a favor,” stated Portland record promoter, Jerry Dennon. “They just didn’t understand Louie Louie.” O’Day recalled, “Liberty was going through a whole bunch of ownership changes and totally dropped the ball. They never put any emphasis behind it.” (8) Louie Louie would have to wait time another time to make rock and roll history.
Rockin' Robin Roberts.
Photo courtesy of LouieLouie.net.
Building a following in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-50s and early 60s was a group called the Downbeats, out of nearby Caldwell, Idaho. The focal point of the group was a piano player by the name of Paul Revere, who in his early teens, was inspired by the antics of Jerry Lee Lewis on American Bandstand. Revere stated simply, “I can do that.” (9)
The group performed a number of venues around the Boise area including sock hops as fundraisers. Revere, an astute businessman at eighteen as he owned and operated three barber shops, deduced that if the group rented the hall themselves foregoing a middleman, they could not only make more money, but also control where and when they would work.
With a more dependable revenue stream, Revere sold his barber shops and purchased the Reed ‘n’ Bell drive-in burger shack in Nampa, Idaho. Revere cross-promoted the burger joint when the band performed and the restaurant soon became the #1 teen hangout in town. “(In 1957), I was 19 and thought I had it made—and I did,” stated the bandleader. (9) With a steady flow of teen customers at the restaurant and the band pulling in as much as $600 a night, Paul Revere was riding high.
In a few months, Revere met a kid who delivered the buns to the shack by the name of Mark Lindsay. The Eugene native, who played the sax and sang, was invited by the Downbeats to join their rehearsals. It didn’t take long to leave a lasting impression. When lead singer, Red Hughes was late for a gig in 1958, the band asked Lindsay to step in until Hughes arrived. Within a few songs, the band saw their future come before their eyes. Lindsay, with stage presence and vocal acuity, raised the band to a new level. Hughes was out; Lindsay was the new lead singer.
By 1960, the band had a solid repertoire of instrumentals and Revere was ready to take the next step. “About that time, we had a lot of original material that we were messin’ around with,” recalled Revere. “So, we crammed into a makeshift studio at Boise radio station KGEM and recorded maybe ten or twelve songs.” (10)
Revere jumped into his car and headed for Hollywood hoping to land a record deal. “I just started knocking on doors,” remembered Revere. (10) Eventually, he made his way to Gardena, California where he met John Guss, owner of a pressing plant. “Guss loved our stuff and wanted to release it (on his own label),” Revere stated. (10) But not before Guss suggested a name change — Paul Revere and the Nightriders. Revere thought that sounded “too country” and opted for another moniker — Paul Revere and the Raiders. (9) “The first record Guss put out was Beatnik Sticks, which was a rock and roll version of Chopsticks. He liked that,” stated Revere. (10)
By September of 1960, Beatnik Sticks became a regional hit from the Northwest down to Los Angeles on Revere’s promotional efforts. “No one in Idaho had ever made a record,” Paul stated. “The radio stations thought they had found a hero and played it. Little towns would jump on it because they were impressed that you’d stopped by.” (9)
Guss had Revere and the group return to California for a promotional tour and to cut a follow-up single in a better studio. Two more singles were produced — Paul Revere’s Ride and Like, Long Hair — the latter a take-off on Rachmaninoff’s C Minor Prelude. Radio took a fancy to Like, Long Hair and added it to their playlists. Dick Clark even played it on American Bandstand. By late March of 1961, Clark invited the group to perform on Bandstand and it appeared the band was ready to breakout. Then Uncle Sam stepped in.
Revere received his draft notice and had to decline the Bandstand invite and the band hired a then-unknown pianist, Leon Russell to fill in for Revere for a few weeks of upcoming bookings. By virtue of Revere’s Mennonite religion, he was awarded Conscientious Objector status and served his two years at a psychiatric facility at Dammasch Hospital just outside Portland, Oregon. (10)
With the band split and the drive-in lost when the lease expired, Revere picked up the pieces and invited Lindsay, who had been living in Los Angeles to join him in Portland upon his release from the military in late 1962 to rebuild the Raiders.
Revere used his tried and true formula to manage the band. He rented a dance hall, promoted the dates, bought the advertising, hired security, paid everybody — in effect, he was “a promoter that happened to get onstage.” But the act needed freshening. “The music in Portland at this time was all folk music,” Lindsay remembered. “We were basically a white R&B band and they’d never seen anything like that before.” Revere added, “We were nasty, bizarre, and the rowdiest, rockingest, craziest group that ever stepped on stage. We were animals. We had the worst reputation in the Northwest.” (11)
According to Dave Marsh, while playing a date at Portland’s Headless Horseman, fans approached the band and made a request. “Play Louie Louie,” they asked Revere. “What’s Louie Louie? None of us knew Richard Berry, Rockin’ Robin Roberts and the Wailers.” Revere, after adding the song to the band’s playlist remained unimpressed. Local radio DJ, concert promoter and future manager of the Raiders, Roger Hart, saw the possibilities of cutting a new version of Louie with the Raiders when he observed the crowd’s reaction. Lindsey agreed to do the session if Hart payed for it. “I think the song is a piece of junk. It’ll never make it,” Revere told Hart. (11)
Peter Blecha tells a different story. “The first time I heard Louie Louie,’ recalled Revere, “was when a record was brought to me by a kid in Portland. He was always bringing me records from his collection. He asked me, ‘Have you ever heard Louie Louie?’ I told him no. So, he played the Wailers version and I said, ‘Wow, that’s hot.’ It took about two minutes to learn. We played it at a dance that night and the crowd loved it. And, so we played it a couple of more times. It got to be a song that we played regularly — at least twice a night — at every dance we played.” Revere and Hart noticed the somewhat magical effect the song had on their dance crowds. “I think you should record Louie Louie,” Hart told Revere. Paul responded, “No problem — you got the money, I got the time.” (12)
1967 Paul Revers and the Raiders. Standing from left Mike Smith, Mark Lindsay, Paul Revere. Seated from left Phil Volk, Jim Valley.
Photo courtesy of Perenchio Artists.
Future Kingsmen members Jack Ely and Lynn Easton met as youngsters as their parents were close friends. Both were musically inclined (Ely on guitar and Easton on drums) as they played in 18 and under entertainment groups touring the Portland area supported by local newspapers. In the autumn of 1959, when one of the touring groups needed a guitar player, Jack was invited to play the date. The hookup led to another date with Easton and Ely featured as a duo. “Lynn found this guitar player at school named Mike Mitchell, who could play lead,” recalled Ely. (13) After bass player Bob Nordby joined the group, the boys would “hang out at lunch time and after school. By now we were doing a lot of R&B — Dee Clark songs, Gene Chandler’s hits,” said Ely. (13)
Both referenced authors agree that it was Easton’s mother who read a newspaper article about a group by the name of the Kingsmen, who were disbanding after their current 1960 tour. One or both of Easton’s parents contacted the group asking permission to use the name after their tour. Permission granted. (13) (14) According to a 1981 article in Goldmine Magazine, Lynn Easton and his mother went to the local courthouse to register the name on everyone’s behalf. The Easton’s took a strong interest in the band and included Lynn’s father’s name on the business cards as manager “so nobody would think they were dealing with a bunch of kids.” (13)
In 1960, the foursome was all under eighteen years old which meant the parents controlled the jobs they took. “Our parents wouldn’t let us play in bars,” remembered Ely. “So, we used to play the weirdest shows you could ever imagine — junior fashion shows on Saturday afternoons at theaters in downtown Portland, Red Cross fundraisers and supermarket openings.” That meant a toned-down show from the rock and roll they liked to play. “We did a lot of thirties and forties songs, vaudeville-type material,” Jack recalled. “We’d play whatever the people in the audience wanted to hear — at the grocery store, you had to play whatever the parents wanted to hear.” (13)
Sometime in 1960, the band connected with Ken Chase, program director for KISN, Portland’s main Top 40 station. Chase also ran a teen night club (no liquor sold) called the Chase in nearby Milwaukee, Oregon and offered the Kingsmen a job as the house band. Working Thursday through Mondays, the band gained a steady following. In early 1961, eager to climb the rock and roll ladder to fame, the group stepped into a local studio and recorded Peter Gunn Rock. “It sounded terrible, so we just made a few acetates for ourselves and forgot about it,” said Ely. (13) The experience only whetted their appetite for the next studio appearance. The man who could lead them there was Chase and they hired him as their manager.
In 1962, Don Gallucci was poached from a rival group at the Headless Horseman and joined the Kingsmen as their organist. Now, as a five-man group, and Louie Louie chosen as the song to record, they kept the pressure on Chase to take them into the studio. Chase agreed with the song choice but kept the boys at bay telling them the time wasn’t right.
While playing the Chase on a Friday night in April of 1963, the band decided to play a double-length set — an hour and a half — of just one song…Louie Louie. Maybe it was the crowd reaction or maybe even divine inspiration, when the group emerged from the marathon, Chase greeted them with a new game plan. “Okay, that’s it. You’re ready to record. We’re going to the studio tomorrow morning. I’ve made all the arrangements. Meet me there at 10:00 A.M.” (13)
“Chase obviously called the studio and set the time at ten o’clock in the morning,” recalled Ely. “We were gonna get our butts outta bed and go down and record this song. We were saying, ‘Tomorrow? How can we get this all together by tomorrow?” (15)
Scholars of Louie Louie (and there are numbers of them!) generally agree the recording day/date was Saturday, April 6, 1963. The Portland studio was Northwest Recorders and the engineer of the session was studio owner, Robert Lindahl. Ken Chase was the last to show for what would become a historic session. The boys brought their equipment inside and Lindahl placed the gear in a circle around the perimeter of the studio and set the mics for the amps and drums accordingly. For lead singer Ely, the microphone was hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room, way above the studio floor. “Chase had it in his mind that he wanted us to sound the same as we sounded in his club,” reasoned Ely. “He thought the sound there had something to do with how the song affected people, which wasn’t true. He stood me in the center of the circle under the microphone and had me lean back and sing up to it. It was more like yelling than singing because I was trying to be heard over all of the instruments.” (15) Add to this fact the marathon Louie session at the club the previous night tore into his voice and that Ely was also wearing braces on his teeth, one could understand why the lyrics were garbled.
After the floor setup, Chase and Lindahl went to the engineer’s booth. Given the go-ahead from Chase, the band started into the song. Part of the way through the first verse, Chase’s voice came through the intercom stopping the band. Authors Blecha and Marsh have different accounts of what happened next. Blecha states that an argument ensued in the control booth and Lindahl was booted out before Chase restarted the session. Marsh iterates that the stop was needed to adjust the control settings.
Play resumed with take two but it was far from perfect. The first miscue occurred about 55 seconds into the song when drummer Easton mishandled a drumstick and shouted an "F-bomb" that could be faintly heard on the recording. Ely missed his mark after the guitar solo and came in too early with the next verse. He stopped and waited for the band to catch up. Easton, who somehow heard what Ely had done, attempted to cover Ely’s mistake with a drum fill but the rest of the band was unaware of what happened and continued to the chorus.
According to Blecha, once the take was completed, the group went into a room to hear the playback. “We listened to it and all of us were moaning, ’That’s horrible. That’s the worst thing I ever heard in my life. That sounds like crap,’” said Ely. “But Ken was elated. He thought it sounded wonderful.” (15)
Marsh’s account is similar but the details are much fuller. While still on the studio floor after completion of the take, the band waited for Chase to call out for the next take. Instead, his voice came through the intercom and stated, “Okay. That was great! What do you guys want to put on the backside?” The band members were not convinced. “Yeah, Yeah. That was great, man, you never did the song better,” Chase told them. “Now, what are you gonna do for the B-side?” The group chose Haunted Castle, an instrumental credited to Easton though Ely claims he and Gallucci wrote it before the session. By this time, the members, though young, knew to use a self-penned flip side to claim composer and publisher credit. (16)
The group, seemingly in a haze about what just happened in the session, walked out of the studio and were stunned with another reality about the music business. Who’s going to pay for session? The answer depends on who you ask. Peter Blecha asked Jack Ely. “Ken Chase came out and said, ‘Well, it’s gonna be fifty bucks. Who’s got the money?’ We just looked at each other. We figured that since he’d been pushin’ us, he’d pay for it. He didn’t. (We) decided that each person would cough up ten bucks and each of us would own a fifth of the pie. Problem was…nobody had ten bucks. Easton’s mom, who was the chauffer that day, paid the fifty bucks and we would all pay her back.” (15)
Dave Marsh credits studio owner Robert Lindahl with the question of payment. “He is,” the boys said, pointing at Chase when asked about paying the tab. “No, I’m not,” There are a number of stories that place the tab from $36 to $50 — Ely said it was $50. Lindahl held the tape until the ransom was paid. The boys dug deep for $10 each and left the studio with their piece of rock and roll history. (16)
Roger Hart believed that early 1963 was the right time for Paul Revere and the Raiders to record Louie Louie. No scholar of the song is absolutely certain of the date but many point to April 13, 1963 — just a week after the Kingsmen recorded their version. The Raiders congregated at the same Portland studio, Northwest Recorders, and recorded Louie Louie and the flip side, Night Train. The deed was done in about a half hour. “There was nothing to it — we had been playing them every night on stage. We just tried to get a sound where the mix was halfway decent, and we played them. We did the music track first then the vocal on the second track.” (15)
Though the versions of Louie Louie were different by both bands, it was still the same song. They would compete. There was a sense of urgency to have the record pressed and promoted. The race was on. Chase aired the Kingsmen tape on his radio show on KISN while Hart played an acetate of the Raiders version on rival KGAY. Chase turned to promoter, Jerry Dennon, who was just starting his own record label, Jerden Records for help. Dennon responded with a supply of 45’s by early May. Hart formed his own label, Sandé Records and had John Guss of Gardena Records, press a thousand 45’s on the new label.
Both bands had their songs racked at the local record stores as the managers mailed out the promo copies. Hart, who changed DJ jobs and was now based in Vancouver, Washington, drew first blood in the Louie Louie war. Arvee Records, who had some national action with Big Boy Pete by the Olympics, showed interest in licensing the record. As Hart spoke with Arvee, national label Columbia Records was calling on another line.
For years, Columbia dismissed rock and roll as a fad and continued to promote classical, country and pop acts. Their hottest properties in the early sixties included, Steve Lawrence, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams. But someone at the New York-based label had a vision of the future, and that future was rock and roll.
Before a deal could be concluded with Columbia, Hart had to travel back to Boise as Revere returned to his familiar stomping grounds, changing band members and opening another night club preparing for that summer. For Revere and the Raiders, the Columbia deal was too good to pass up and on May 23, 1963, the group signed with Columbia for an advance of around $4000 and a promise to give their record a national push. By June 11, the Raiders’ Louie Louie bore the imprint of Columbia Records.
With both managers moving from station to station as their day jobs as DJ’s during the summer of 1963, playlists around the Northwest shifted to favor one group or the other based on the respective business interests of Chase and Hart. The sales of the song tipped heavily in favor of the Raiders, who reportedly sold sixty to seventy thousand records in the Northwest alone against six hundred for the Kingsmen. (18)
By the fall, another complication befell the Kingsmen. The Portland branch of the AFM Local 99 discovered the group wasn’t registered as dues-paying members and forced them to join. The results were a double-edged sword — higher pay for performances but it priced them out of many local venues, including the Chase, the club they worked for years.
But the worst blow to the Kingsmen occurred on August 16, a day Ely remembered as long as he lived. “For a few months I knew Easton was learning to play the saxophone,” Ely stated. (17) At a rehearsal on that fateful day, Easton announced he wanted to stop playing drums and move to front the band singing and playing the sax. Ely continued. “He said we needed a stronger personality up front. Mike and I didn’t do enough talking to the audience. Lynn always focused on what bar bands did — just as I focused on what rock stars did. He wanted Vegas. I wanted Elvis.” (18) The exchange was about to become bizarre.
Easton stated that Jack, a guitarist, would become the group’s drummer, ignoring the fact that Easton had trained for years as a drummer and could hardly sing. Ely responded that he had no objection sitting behind the drums for a few songs that Easton could sing, but he was the singer that this band was built on and that’s the way it would stay. “We’ve always discussed things and taken a vote. That’s the way it is in this band,” Ely argued. To that, Easton stated, “Well, I’m the band now. Do you remember when we took the name the Kingsmen? My mom and I went to the courthouse to register the name. Because we were minors, we all had to have a parent sign on the form. Mom and I figured it was too much of a hassle to have a parent from all of us in front of a notary and return it to the courthouse. So, the name is registered to me with my mom as co-signer. You’ll do what I want. It’s my band.” (19)
With that, Ely and bass player Bob Nordby gathered their equipment and quit the Kingsmen. Obviously angry, Ely believed he had nothing to lose. “At that time, our record was dead. It was going nowhere. Louie Louie was a dead issue.” (19)
By the end of summer, the Raiders version hit #1 in San Francisco and appeared ready to break out nationally. But the Raiders couldn’t take advantage of the momentum as they returned to Boise, regrouping as they had their own personnel issues.
Jerry Dennon knew the Raiders Louie had a hold from Northern California to the Pacific Northwest. So, he tried to get a foothold in Los Angeles. No label would take a bite. Even Capitol Records rejected the record reportedly stating it was “the worst piece of garbage they had ever heard.” (20)
Dennon changed gears and shipped a few hundred copies to Bob Levinson of Bay State Distributors in Boston. In October, Levinson took Louie with a number of other records he represented to top-rated DJ, Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg of Boston powerhouse WMEX. When Ginsburg played Louie, he reportedly looked at Levinson and said, “This is interesting. But it sounds awful.” Ginsburg had plans for the record — to feature it on his oldies show in a segment titled, “The Worst Record of the Week.” Woo Woo had a flair with bells, whistles and other gimmicks as part of his schtick and it fit perfectly with the rock and roll novelty records he preferred. To his ears, Louie Louie was that perfect rock and roll novelty record and to that point on this particular fall evening, he played it twice.
“The next morning when I came into the office,” Ginsburg remembered decades later, “there were maybe fifty calls from record stores, wanting to know where they could get copies of Louie Louie. People were asking for it — on the basis of those two plays.” (20)
On October 5, Billboard Magazine issued “Regional Breakout” status to the Raider’s Louie based on their sales in San Francisco. (20) About this same time, the Kingsmen’s Louie was picking up steam in the Boston area.
New York-based Wand Records co-owner, Marv Schlachter received his copy of the Kingsmen’s Louie. “Frankly, we didn’t think much of it and passed on it,” recalled Schlacter in 1991. “I had a phone conversation with Bob Levinson, and asked him what was hot. He told me about the Kingsmen record that had been selling a ton. I reached into my desk drawer where I kept the records I rejected and there it was. I called Jerry Dennon (and we struck a deal).” (20)
On October 19, the Kingsmen Louie was noted in Billboard as a “Regional Breakout.” (19) On November 2, the Raiders scored another “Regional Breakout” in Los Angeles while the Kingsmen Wand release reached “Bubbling Under” status at #127. November 9 saw the Kingsmen record kicking it into gear at #83 while the Raiders had their own “Bubbling Under” spot at #108. By November 16, the Kingsmen at #58 were running away from the Raiders, who fell from chart status. (19)
Jerry Dennon summed up the competition like this. “Columbia didn’t know what they had. Wand was a black-oriented label that knew how to merchandise, market and run (with the song). Columbia was very deliberate and Wand just killed them. They (Wand) took it and ran.” (21)
“Columbia blew it,” roared an angry Revere. “Columbia wasn’t pushing the record and they didn’t believe in it. Wand…was hip to what rock and R&B stations (needed) to play this song. Whereas, Columbia…I don’t think even had a list of rock and roll stations to send the song. We…got lost in the shuffle.” (21)
Jack Ely was shocked when he received a phone call from Ken Chase who told Ely about the resurrection of Louie. His first inclination was to make peace and relish in the fruits of victory. Easton had other ideas. Lynn recruited Norm Sundholm to play bass and hired drummer Gary Abbott. Easton reserved the Chase for two nights on November 15 and 16 to record an album which became The Kingsmen in Person Featuring Louie Louie. A two-week tour of Illinois, Minnesota and North Dakota was booked by newly-hired William Morris Agency. The tour proved too much for the young members and the Kingsmen once again, disbanded. When Louie Louie landed at the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 on December 14, (22) the band reformed and added drummer, Dick Peterson and a short time later, new keyboardist Barry Curtis joined the band.
Louie stayed at the #2 slot trailing only Dominique by The Singing Nun for two weeks, slipped to #3 for a week and regained the #2 place this time behind only There! I’ve Said It Again by Bobby Vinton for the next three weeks. Interesting to note the top four songs on the chart dated January 25, 1964. Vinton and the Kingsmen occupied the first two entries. The future of rock and roll placed third — I Want To Hold Your Hand by The Beatles and Surfin’ Bird by The Trashmen at #4 — a wide range of musical tastes as one generation of pop music was handed to the next. (22) (24)
In the twist-at-every turn of the Louie Louie legacy, there was yet another hurdle facing the band in the winter of 1964. A rumor came out that the muddy vocal of Jack Ely on Louie concealed “dirty” lyrics that could be revealed if one would play the “45 single at the speed of 331/3.” Of course, the rumor spread like wildfire as written sheets containing the interpretation of some imaginative teenagers were passed at school. One set may have made their way to a Sarasota, Florida high school teacher, whose daughter had just purchased the record. So upset was the teacher after hearing the record, she fired off a letter dated January 30, 1964 to then Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, complaining about lyrics “so filthy, I cannot enclose them in this letter.”
The Justice Department took his complaint seriously. The FBI launched an official investigation into Louie Louie. They wanted to see if it violated the laws against ITOMM—Interstate Transportation of Obscene Materials. So, the FBI sent an agent from the Tampa FBI office to interview the person who complained. The agent reported to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that the complainant worked at Sarasota High School and that Louie Louie is “very popular with high school students, and he has been furnished lyrics for the song that are very dirty.” Just listening to the record, the man said, “the words are hard to recognize,” but by referring to the dirty lyrics “it sounds like the lyrics are identical with the enclosed obscene lyrics.”
The agent included the lyric sheet with his report to the director. Hoover soon dispatched agents to question The Kingsmen, Richard Berry, Paul Revere & the Raiders and record company executives. FBI laboratory technicians played the song at every conceivable setting. They—and the Federal Communications Commission, which joined the case—spent 31 months pursuing the Louie Louie rumor. Their ultimate conclusion? The song was unintelligible at any speed! (25)
If the FBI investigation wasn’t enough, two Frankfort, Indiana students who complained about the lyrics to then-Governor Matthew Welsh. An aide was sent to purchase the record and it was brought back to the Governor. Listening at several different speeds, Welsh was convinced it might be dirty. So, he passed it to the FCC and contacted the Indiana Broadcasters Association and requested that member radio stations remove the song from their rotation.
Within days the recording would be under investigation by the FCC, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI. Leroy New, Marion County's chief trial deputy prosecutor, listened to Louie Louie over and over along with Gov. Welsh's men. New contemplated filing obscenity charges but told the Indianapolis Star he "couldn't say one way or another" if the record was obscene. He was, however, certain the song was "an abomination of out-of-tune guitars and overbearing jungle rhythm and clanging cymbals." On February 11, 1964, three weeks after Gov. Welsh sounded the alarm, the FCC, the U.S. Postal Service and the Justice Department dropped their Louie Louie investigations. (26) Guitarist Mike Mitchell had this to say about the ban. “We benefited from all the controversy. Anytime you ban something, it only makes people want to hear it more; in fact, the song was already going down the charts when the controversy started, but as soon as word got out that the lyrics might be obscene, it went right back up to the top.” (30)
As all involved with the record were dealing with the lyrics controversy, Ely and Chase reunited to cash in on the opportunity. Jack had a new band that was called, Jack Ely and the Kingsmen. Billed as the band with the “original singer of Louie Louie,” Chase acted as manager and booked them at the Chase before they hit the road. With the strategy of preceding the Kingsmen road tour and booking themselves a few nights earlier, Ely’s group cut into receipts of the original band. Naturally, this caused a number of problems that eventually led to a lawsuit that dragged out in court for two years.
In 1965, the suit was settled with Ely receiving $6000 in back royalties; Easton became sole proprietor of the Kingsmen name; Jack could bill himself as the “original lead singer of Louie Louie;” Lynn could no longer appear on TV to lipsynch Louie. Curiously, the most valuable asset — songwriting or publishing royalties — were never settled. That issue would be saved for another day. (23)
The Easton-led Kingsmen continued to tour and record a number of sides for Wand Records. Only nine placed on the Billboard Hot 100 with Jolly Green Giant (a take-off on the Olympics Big Boy Pete) hitting the Top Ten. (7) By 1968, the Kingsmen (Richard Peterson, Mike Mitchell, Lynn Easton, Norm Sundholm and Barry Curtis) reached their musical expiration date. Musical tastes were changing, the group reached a saturation point with touring and record sales were dwindling. They decided to cash in their chips with Wand Records and reached an agreement and signed away the rights to their version of Louie Louie for nine percent of future licensing fees and profits.
According to a lawsuit filed in the US District Court in Los Angeles on September 29, 1993, “Sometime thereafter, Scepter/Wand ceased operations and their catalog of masters, including 105 Kingsmen recordings, was acquired by another firm,” wrote Barry Curtis. “We didn't think much about this, although we became aware of occasional releases of our material, most frequently Louie Louie, on various labels. At that point, we felt we should be receiving royalties for these releases, but had no idea how to collect them — we had ended our management agreement and, thus, were without managerial or legal representation.” (27)
In 1978, the movie, Animal House was released and interest in Louie Louie was reignited as John Belushi sang it in the movie and the KIngsmen version was played over closing credits. The group hoped for synchronization rights (rights owned by the record label, songwriter and publisher) but attempts to collect failed. One benefit to the group was that the movie sparked a new interest in “Oldies” music and another incarnation of the Kingsmen formed in 1981 to take advantage of the genre renewal.
Still, no royalty payments were made even after the group won a case against K-Tel, who released remakes (stating “Original Songs by Original Artists”) of Louie Louie and Jolly Green Giant sung by Jack Ely and Lynn Easton respectively. The group’s major roadblock was discovering who actually owned the masters. After years of searching, they discovered that the “chain of title has passed through five or six companies. We finally found (in the early-nineties) that our masters were owned by GML, Inc. of Nashville, Tennessee,” stated Curtis. (27)
The lawsuit was filed in 1993 in Los Angeles. The group didn’t sue for past royalties but for “rescission of contract” — basically, non-payment of past royalties negating the 1968 agreement. According to Curtis, “Simply stated, we sued for ownership of all the 105 master recordings themselves, including the contracts and all existing third-party licenses associated with each of them, and for the on-going exclusive right to issue all future licenses for the use of these masters throughout the world.” (27)
The Federal Court ruled in the favor of the Kingsmen. But the case was appealed. On April 10, 1998, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held up the original ruling and concluded:
1) “The parties do not dispute that the Kingsmen never received a single penny of the considerable royalties that Louie Louie has produced over the past 30 years," a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its unanimous opinion.
2) The Kingsmen signed away the rights to their version of Louie Louie in 1968 for nine percent of future licensing fees and profits. They were never paid, however, and in 1993 members of the group finally sued the record companies that now hold the rights to the record.
3) The court's ruling said that that action constituted a "recision," or cancellation, of the 1968 contract agreement and meant that money from uses of the Kingsmen's version of Louie Louie should now go to the band.
4) The Kingsmen are entitled to all income derived from the exploitation of the recordings following Sept. 29, 1993, the court said, upholding a lower court's ruling.” (27)
There was more than one happy ending for those closely associated with Louie Louie. Like the Kingsmen, it took years for Richard Berry to receive his due. Berry was still working late night lounges around the Southern California area in the early 1960s.
In the autumn of 1963, someone mentioned, “Some white guys destroyed your song.” Berry’s reaction? “And when I heard it…it was strange,” he recalled. “I heard a lot about it but didn’t know what to expect when I heard it. I wasn’t insulted. It was just strange.” That bit of emotion migrated to embarrassed and angry. “I was flattered when it became a hit, but then I got bitter about it. Here I was, the writer, and all of those millions of dollars went into somebody else’s pockets. If I had thought very much about it, I probably would have gone crazy or killed somebody.” (28)
By 1980, Berry burned out playing the after-hours circuit. There weren’t many job opportunities for an over-40 musician. Money from BMI and an occasional gig was his only income. Shortly thereafter, he found himself in the welfare line. By 1983, Berry was contacted by an old friend — Darlene Love. It was Love, featured in many Phil Spector hits with the Crystals and as the leader of the premiere back-up group, the Blossoms, who told Richard a man named Chuck Rubin wanted to talk to him about regaining his rights to Louie Louie.
Rubin’s company, Artists Rights Enforcement Corporation, started looking into returning publishing rights and record royalties in the late seventies to artists who had been cheated or otherwise taken advantage of during their careers. Rubin took a look at Berry’s case. Richard was skeptical. “I still felt it was a no-win situation.” (29)
For two years, Rubin only raised the ire of Max Fiertag of Limax Music, owner of the songwriting and publishing rights to Louie Louie. But Berry and Rubin caught a break in 1985. Limax was offered a big deal for the use of Louie in an upcoming commercial blitz for California Cooler, a brand of fizzy wine coolers. The campaign by ad agency, Chiat-Day, featured a beach party theme using a number of 60’s songs — Gimme Some Lovin, Tutti Frutti and Green Onions — with Louie as their centerpiece. Chiat-Day, sensing possible litigation with Louie, also had Wild Thing waiting in the wings.
The pressure on Limax worked and a deal was made in 1986 that reassigned half the copyright to Berry’s American Berry Music, which gave Berry seventy-five percent of the song (half the publisher’s share plus the entirety of the writer’s share.) Of the $20,000 Chiat-Day paid for the use of Louie, Berry received $6750 — a 50-50 split of the $13,500 share of the proceeds with Rubin. The were no back royalties for Berry in the agreement with Limax but there were future dollars — Chiat-Day renewed for 1986, money from royalties of an LP, The Best of Louie Louie, plus money every time the Kingsmen, who returned to the stage and performed Louie. No more waitin’ in the welfare line for Richard Berry.
Louie Louie has been recognized by organizations and publications worldwide for its influence on the history of rock and roll. A partial list includes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, National Public Radio, VH1, Rolling Stone Magazine, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Recording Industry Association of America.
Other major examples of the song's legacy include the celebration of International Louie Louie Day every year on April 11; the annual Louie Louie Parade in Philadelphia from 1985 to 1989; the LouieFest in Tacoma from 2003 to 2012; the ongoing annual Louie Louie Street Party in Peoria; and the unsuccessful attempt in 1985 to make it the state song of Washington. (31)
Dave Marsh wrote, "It is the best of songs, it is the worst of songs.” (31) Rock historian Peter Blecha notes, "Far from shuffling off to a quiet retirement, evidence indicates that Louie Louie may actually prove to be immortal." (33)
The birth of Louie Louie began with this cha cha cha from René Touzet.
Richard Berry recorded the original version of Louie Louie.
Rockin' Robin Roberts and the Wailers made Louie their own.
Paul Revere and the Raiders version of Louie Louie outsold the Kingsmen in the Northwest.
With Lynn Easton lyp-synching the lead, this stereo remastered version video comes from an episode of Shindig which originally aired on ABC on Wednesday, June 23, 1965.
1) Peter Blecha, Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from “Louie Louie” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, 2009, Pages 134-135.
2) Dave Marsh, Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World's Most Famous Rock 'n' Roll Song, 1993, Pages 12-14.
3) Dave Marsh, Pages 32-33.
4) Dave Marsh, Pages 34-35.
5) Dave Marsh, Pages 38-40.
6) Peter Blecha, Pages 1-3.
7) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 748.
8) Peter Blecha, Page 117-119.
9) Dave Marsh, Page 90-92.
10) Peter Blecha, Pages 123-125.
11) Dave Marsh, Page 94-95.
12) Peter Blecha, Page 138.
13) Dave Marsh, Pages 86-88.
14) Peter Blecha, Page 133.
15) Peter Blecha, Pages 137-139.
16) Dave Marsh, Page 98.
17) Peter Blecha, Page 142.
18) Dave Marsh, Page 100.
19) Peter Blecha, Page 144-146.
20) Dave Marsh, Page 107-109.
21) Peter Blecha, Page 147.
22) Joel Whitburn, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties, December 14, 1964.
23) Dave Marsh, Page 112-113.
24) Joel Whitburn, Page 385.
25) Craig Pittman, Sarasota Magazine, How a Sarasota Educator Got the FBI to Investigate the Lyrics of a Rock Song, August 25, 2017, Link.
26) Will Higgins, Indianapolis Star, That time Indiana teens ratted out dirty ‘Louie Louie’ lyrics, and the FBI got involved, January 2, 2019, Link.
27) Lawsuit info, The Kingsmen, 2003 Link.
28) Dave Marsh, Page 173.
29) Dave Marsh, Page 195.
30) Thomas K. Arnold, Los Angeles Times, Perennial Rock ‘n’ Roll Hit: ‘Louie Louie’ Keeps Kingsmen Going, September 26, 1986, Link.
31) Wikipedia, Louie Louie. Link.
32) Dave Marsh, Page 3.
33) Peter Blecha, Seattle Times, Garage Rock Anthem “Louie Louie” Turns 50, April 1, 2007, Link.
Photo courtesy of Wand Records.
© 2019 Jerry Reuss