There are a lot of iconic songs in the rock and roll pantheon, but few have as wild and woolly a history as “Louie Louie.” The song is widely celebrated for the hit version by The Kingsmen, but the story of “Louie Louie” really begins with Richard Berry, a Los Angeles-based singer and songwriter. Berry was a member of several doo-wop and R&B groups during the 1950s. He was inspired to pen “Louie Louie” after hearing a calypso-flavored tune called “El Loco Cha Cha,” performed by Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers. Berry’s tale of a Jamaican sailor’s quest to be reunited with his girl was first recorded in 1957 by Berry and his band the Pharaohs. While this version became something of a regional hit, it didn’t make much of a dent on the charts.
Berry’s recording did have an impact on Rockin’ Robin Roberts, a singer who heard and liked the song. He later recorded it with The Fabulous Wailers, a group from Tacoma, Washington. Roberts’ energetic cover of Berry’s tune was released as a single and received significant airplay in the Pacific Northwest. This version inspired several bands to record their own renditions of the song, including The Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders. The Kingsmen’s fast-paced, proto-garage rock interpretation, with a screaming vocal by Jack Ely and its unintelligible lyrics, became a monster-sized hit, making it all the way to number two on the charts in 1963.
The Kingsmen’s recording of the tune quickly became ubiquitous, with a number of contemporary artists, like Otis Redding, doing their own takes on the song, or releasing “answer” records, such as Paul Revere and the Raiders raucous “Louie, Go Home.”
“Louie, Louie” also gained notoriety when the song’s often misunderstood lyrics were perceived to be obscene by some parents, whose complaints about the song led to the tune being banned on some radio stations. Teenagers also shared their interpretations of the song’s “racy” lyrics with their friends, which helped foster the urban legend of its “dirty” content. The song became the focus of an FBI probe into its supposedly lewd lyrics. Their investigation turned up no specific evidence of obscenity in the song, and the agency later admitted the lyrics were actually indecipherable. All the controversy only contributed to the song’s legend, and “Louie, Louie” continued to be a staple on radio playlists, as well as a standard entry on the setlist of both local and national bands, throughout the 1960s.
The song gained new life when it was featured in the 1978 film National Lampoon’s Animal House, despite the fact that the story took place in 1962, a year before the song’s actual release. “Louie, Louie” has been featured in many other movies and television shows, including Quadrophenia, Wayne’s World 2, and Mr. Holland’s Opus. The song has been covered numerous times by bands as varied as The Beach Boys, Motorhead, Toots and the Maytals, Black Flag, The Grateful Dead, and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. There have also been several compilation albums consisting solely of remakes of the tune, kicked off by the 1983 Rhino Records release, The Best of Louie Louie. Noted rock critic Dave Marsh wrote a book about the song and its legacy, entitled Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World’s Most Famous Rock ‘n Roll Song.
Richard Berry, who began “Louie Louie’s” incredible journey, only belatedly got to benefit from his achievement. After releasing some less successful follow-up singles, he sold most of the publishing rights to his label, Flip Records, for $750. In the mid-1980s, California Coolers wanted to feature the song in a commercial. The company discovered they would need Berry’s signature in order to use the song. A lawyer helped him initiate a lawsuit, which was later settled out of court, gaining Berry millions of dollars in back royalties from the song. The Kingsmen also had legal issues associated with their version of “Louie Louie.” The band that recorded the most famous version of the song had never seen any money from its success over the years, and members of the group eventually sued their label in the 1990s. The court ruled in their favor, and the band finally received the royalties that had been denied them in the past. To this day, “Louie, Louie” remains a rock and roll classic and a bona fide party anthem. [Editor’s Note: Check out this cheeky look at the rock classic!]
Photo: The Kingsmen, 1966 (public domain)
The Kingsmen won more than just back royalties from Gusto Records (the company which had purchased the Wand label catalog, including all the Kingsmen material). The band was also handed back all their Wand label master recoridings, from “Louie Louie” and “Jolly Green Giant” to “Money” and “Little Latin Lupe Lu.” It’s worth noting that The Kingsmen and Paul Revere & the Raiders recorded their versions of “Louie Louie” only one day apart in the very same recording studio. When Wand picked up The Kingsmen’s version, they rush released it to radio stations. The Raiders’ label, Columbia, hesitated too long. That’s because The Raiders were the very first rock ‘n’ roll act ever signed to Columbia Records — the home of easy listening artists like Andy Williams and Barbra Streisand — amd hadn’t a clue as how to market rock ‘n’ roll.
That was awesome.
No one had ever mentioned the significant contribution that Rockin’ Robin Roberts and the Fabulous Wailers had when their version first became a regional hit. It was like a NW anthem even back then and influenced every band that heard it. On the Richard Berry version the song follows the standard blues I-IV-V major chord progression. The Wailers guitarist Richard Dangle altered the progression by changing the major V chord to a minor V giving the song a whole new flavor which the Kingsmen also followed. The notion that the lyrics were unintelligible is absurd. Any teenager in the NW new the words quite well and even Jack’s strangled vocals on the Kingsmen version are easily understood. The most radical rendering of the song at that time was the version by The Sonics also from the Seattle/Tacoma area. They altered the progression by eliminating the V chord altogether, changing the progression to a I-III-IV. It’s a raw power smack to the head.
The minor V chord is what sets it apart, IMO.
The progression is I Major – IV Major – V Minor – IV Major.
Richard Berry’s version was doo wop while Robin’s was rock and roll. The NW was one of the few bastians of true rock and roll until the Beatles arrived to save us. Thos NW cats knew what they were doing!
The Rockin’ Robin version was pretty much the template for the Kingsmen’s version right down to Robin crying out “Let’s give it to them right now!” Both the Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders (both of whom recorded the tune the same week in the same studio) copied Robin and the Wailers’ version. The Raiders included the sax bit which the Kingsmen didn’t.
I truly enjoyed this article. My only real problem with it is that you never picture my dad and the original Kingsmen which of course is a considerable amount of the reporting. Signed Sean Ely