Two music icons from the Boomer Era passed away this past week. Their music was such an integral part of the early Baby Boomer scene that Mister Boomer felt he had to give these men their due here.
Jack Ely (September 11, 1943 – April 28, 2015)
Born in Portland, Oregon, Jack Brown Ely was the son of a prominent singer, Ken Ely. His father died when Jack was 4. At an early age he was taking piano lessons, giving his first recital by age 7. When Jack saw Elvis perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, he changed instruments and took up the guitar.
Jack got together with friend Lynn Easton to form the Kingsmen in 1959, performing rock ‘n roll covers during his high school and college years. In 1963 he persuaded the band and the band’s manager to record Louie Louie after hearing a Wailers’ version on a jukebox.
Louie Louie was recorded on April 6 in Portland, Oregon that year in one take. Jack was 19, but even though Jack had helped form the band, drummer Lynn Easton’s name was on the papers registering the band name, making him the de facto leader of the group. When Mr. Easton decided he wanted to take over lead vocals, Jack Ely was sent packing.
Jack formed his own band, which he also called the Kingsmen, and recorded Love That Louie in 1964 for RCA Records. The resulting lawsuits required Jack to give up the Kingsmen name, but he gained recognition on the Wand label pressings of Louie Louie as lead vocalist. For his vocal performance, he was paid $6,000 in royalties, a paltry sum from a record that sold millions of copies.
Mister Boomer has written about the phenomena that was Louie Louie (Boomers Loved the Mystique of “Louie Louie”). He recalls the whispers around the schoolyard concerning the supposed off-color lyrics, but as he grew older, he realized slightly older boomers — including his brother — were responding to the raw energy of the music, rather than only to the garbled vocals. The immediately identifiable organ and guitar opening was not only worthy of radio airplay, but became a definitive sound for garage bands everywhere, dreaming of the big time themselves.
Jack was drafted in 1968, and after serving in the Army found his musical profile had waned. He became a horse trainer, and advocate of legislation that would give royalties to recording artists, as well as songwriters. He was also active in Rockers Against Drugs. He was banned from singing — or lip-syncing on TV — Louie Louie, so he never got to sing the song that made him famous again.
Mister Boomer has three copies of Louie Louie in his music collection: he inherited the 45 RPM record from Brother Boomer when he moved out of the family house (with the original Wand label!); he has a version by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and another by Paul Revere & the Raiders, who, ironically enough, had recorded their version in Portland, Oregon the same week as the Kingsmen.
Jack Ely died on April 28 in Oregon. He is survived by his sons, Robert and Sean, daughter, Sierra, and his third wife, Wendy.
Ben E. King (September 28, 1938 – April 30, 2015)
Benjamin Earl Nelson, known as Ben E. King to music fans, was born in Henderson, North Carolina. His family moved to Harlem, in New York City, when he was 9. There he grew up singing doo-wop on street corners. He was discovered by the manager of the Drifters in 1958, singing with the doo-wop group, the Five Crowns. Later that year, the manager — George Treadwell — replaced members of the Drifters with members of the Five Crowns.
The Drifters had a series of hits in the late 50s, including Save the Last Dance for Me, This Magic Moment and I Count the Tears with Ben singing lead vocals. In all he would only record thirteen songs with the Drifters. Contract disputes caused him to leave the band in 1960.
As a solo artist, Ben stayed with Atlantic Records on the Atco label and had his first hit, Spanish Harlem, in 1961. His next single was Stand By Me, the song he co-wrote that is forever etched into the minds of boomers, millennials and GenXers. His songs continued to chart on Billboard’s Top 100 until 1965. In 1968, Stand By Me reappeared on the charts when the movie by Rob Reiner was released.
Ben’s music was a favorite among musicians, and his songs were covered often. Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and Souxsie and the Banshees are among the varied artists who covered the songs he wrote or sang. Stand By Me alone was covered by Otis Redding, John Lennon, Maurice White, Prince Royce and Mickey Gilley, among others.
Recorded by by Ben E. King in 1963, I (Who Have Nothing) was released in 1963. Shirley Bassey recorded it the same year, and it was a hit for Tom Jones in 1970.
Ben E. King has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a Drifter). Stand By Me and Spanish Harlem were named among the top 100 influential songs of rock ‘n roll by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Mister Boomer enjoyed Spanish Harlem and Ben E. King’s vocal with the Drifters more than Stand By Me. After Mr. King’s death was announced, Mister B searched his music collection, only to realize that he does not have a single song sung by Ben E. King in his collection. That must be rectified immediately.
Which Jack Ely and Ben E. King songs resonate with you, boomers?