By Ray Baxter
This iconic song was written by Los Angeles based singer Richard Berry. It was released in 1957 on Flip Records (as a “B” side) by Richard Berry & the Pharaohs.
The 1956 songs “El Loco Cha Cha” by Latin bandleader Rene Touzet and “Havana Moon” by Chuck Berry (no relation) were major influences.
“Louie Louie” became very popular in Washington state with many local bands performing it live. Two bands to actually rerecord it in 1961 were Little Bill & the Bluenotes on Topaz records, and Rockin’ Robin Roberts & the Wailers (nothing to do with Bob Marley’s group); it was this latter version where the arrangement was dramatically changed from Berry’s original. Then in April 1963 within a week of each other, two local bands from Portland, Oregon also recorded “Louie Louie;” they were Paul Revere & the Raiders and The Kingsmen.
The most popular version is the Kingsmen’s recording, and it is likely the result of the supposed “dirty lyrics” that caused an uptick in sales. An official investigation was started by the FBI, but nothing was found regarding the lyrics; interestingly at the 54 second mark the drummer curses when dropping a drumstick but this the FBI did not take note of. The actual lyrics (on next page) are quite simple and tell the story of a Jamaican sailor returning home to see his love interest. The sailor is chatting with a bartender whose name is Louie.
There are numerous musical mistakes made by Jack Ely (lead singer of the Kingsmen) and my friend and R&R historian Randy Hill told me the following:
“The Kingsmen recorded in Portland at 10:00 on a Saturday morning in 1963. The studio was actually normally a musical theater setting. The Kingsmen’s manager wanted to get a “live” feel, so he had the recording engineer raise the mic far off the stage floor. Jack Ely stood in the middle of the musicians. He was kinda sick (not drunk) that morning, plus he had braces on his teeth. Add to this the fact that he had to lean back and yell up at the mic, and you can see how everything came out slurred.
The first take was supposed to be a sound check. The drummer yelled “fxxx” shortly into the song, although it’s unintelligible. Ely came in too soon after the break and started over. Ely’s yelling “Let’s give it to ’em” and “Let’s move on outta here” supposedly came from the Wailers. Anyway, the Kingsmen were aghast that their manager wanted to release the mic check as the record. They begged him to let them do the song again, hut he was adamant that this had the raw sound he had hoped to get. The rest is history.”
Richard Berry sold the rights to most of his music (including “Louie Louie”) in 1959 for $750 to finance his upcoming wedding. Despite all the success of his signature song, during much of his adult life he saw no benefit. But then with the help of an attorney Richard was able to reclaim the rights to his song and received in 1992 his first royalty check for $2 million. Sadly, less than five years later in January 1997 he died at the age of 61 due to heart failure.
By some counts there are more than 1600 released versions of “Louie Louie” making it one of the most recorded Rock & Roll songs ever.