Richard Berry wrote “Louie Louie” in 1955, a song about a sailor from the Caribbean pouring his heart out about missing his faraway love to a bartender named Louie. Originally performed in the style of a Jamaican ballad, the song was performed by many different groups. As was the custom in the 1950s and ’60s, groups would record other songwriters’ material, putting their own stamp on the performance.
In October of 1963 The Kingsmen from Portland, Oregon, released their version of “Louie Louie” on the Jerdan/Wand label. It turned the Jamaican ballad into a slapdash, raucous, garage-rock sound with a distinctive guitar line and raspy vocals. Lead singer Jack Ely has stated that the record was cut in one session, with a single microphone suspended above the band, which resulted in the record’s raw sound.
At first, the record wasn’t going anywhere. The band was so distraught over the poor sales that they considered disbanding. Then a Boston DJ named Arnie Ginsburg featured it as his “Worst Record of the Week,” and instead of deriding it, the public took notice. By end of October it was charting. Soon after, it hit number one and spent 16 weeks on the Hot 100 Cashbox list, and became a favorite at teen parties.
Then the controversy began. Word spread among teens that the lyrics to the song were actually dirty. Supposed lost copies of the “real” lyrics surfaced from coast to coast, as teens passed copies of imagined lyrics to one another in classrooms. When the daughter of a teacher in Sarasota, Florida brought the record home, her father decided he’d better see what his daughter was listening to. His conclusion was the song was “obscene,” so in January of 1964 he wrote a letter to the Attorney General of the United States, Robert Kennedy.
The teacher’s letter ended with:“This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation what with this record, the biggest hit movies and the sex and violence exploited on T.V. How can we stamp out this menace???” Echoes of how rock ‘n roll was destroying our society from parental protests in the 1950s were still fresh in the minds of many older people — and government officials.
Buzz continued to build that the song was obscene, so it was banned by many radio stations across the country, and personally banned by the governor of Indiana. The Attorney General had no choice but to turn the case over to the FBI for investigation of its alleged “hidden pornographic meaning.” For the next 31 months the FBI conducted an intense investigation, interviewing the original songwriter Rick Berry, Kingsmen band members — including singer Jack Ely — and parents of teens. The FBI labs also played the song repeatedly at different speeds. The result 119 pages later? The official report lists the lyrics as “unintelligible at any speed.” The government ruled on May 13, 1964, that there was no basis to the allegations, but complaints persisted to J. Edgar Hoover.
Paul Revere & the Raiders recorded the song before The Kingsmen in April 1963. After a slow start, it was re-released in June 1963 and got to be number one in the West and Hawaii, but Columbia Records pulled the recording back at the insistence of Mitch Miller, then a Columbia A&R man, who hated rock ‘n roll. Even though the song was charting, it was not as popular as The Kingsmen’s version was to be six months later — and with no public controversy attached to it.
Lyrics notwithstanding, the song as recorded by The Kingsmen was extremely influential in the world of rock ‘n roll. It has been said that “Wild Thing” by The Troggs was an attempt to capture that raw energy exuded by “Louie Louie.” Ray Davies of The Kinks has written that when he wrote the hit, “You Really Got Me,” he was really trying to work out the chords to “Louie Louie.” The lead-in guitar line is one of the most memorable in rock history. Certainly boomers can name that tune after hearing just the “ner, dut dut dut, dut dut…” opening.
The song has been recorded more than 1,600 times, and continues to be popular, but the history of the song in our boomer years transcended mere music. The writing was on the wall that rock ‘n roll was here to stay.
Did you see — or pass around — a copy of the “real” “Louie Louie” lyrics, boomers?