But–what the heck–the investigation only lasted THIRTY ONE MONTHS!!!!!
“Louie Louie” is an American rock ‘n’ roll song written by Richard Berry in 1955. It has become a standard in pop and rock, with hundreds of versions recorded by different artists. The song is written in the style of a Jamaican ballad; and tells, in simple verse-chorus form, the first-person story of a Jamaican sailor returning to the island to see his lady love. The singer brags of his “fine little girl” to the Louie of the title, presumably a bartender.
A recording by The Kingsmen in 1963 is the best-known version. The Kingsmen’s edition was also the subject of an FBI investigation about the supposed but non-existent obscenity of the lyrics, an investigation that ended without prosecution. The song is ranked #55 on the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Richard Berry was inspired to write the song in 1955 after listening to and performing the song “El Loco Cha Cha” with Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers. The tune was written originally as “Amarren Al Loco” (“Tie up the crazy guy”) by Cuban bandleader Rosendo Ruiz Jr. – also known as Rosendo Ruiz Quevedo – but became best known in the arrangement by René Touzet which included a rhythmic ten-note “1-2-3 1-2 1-2-3 1-2” riff. Touzet performed the tune regularly in Los Angeles clubs in the 1950s. In Berry’s mind, the words “Louie Louie” superimposed themselves over the bass riff. Lyrically, the first person perspective of the song was influenced by “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”, which is sung from the perspective of a customer talking to a bartender. Berry cited Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” and his exposure to Latin American music for the song’s speech pattern and references to Jamaica.
Richard Berry released his version in April 1957 (Flip Records 321), originally as a B-side, with his backing band The Pharaohs, and scored a regional hit on the west coast, particularly in San Francisco. When the group toured the Pacific Northwest, several local R&B bands began to adopt the song and established its popularity. The track was then re-released as an A-side. However, the single never charted on Billboard’s national rhythm and blues or pop charts. Berry’s label reported that the single had sold 40,000 copies. After a series of unsuccessful follow-ups, Berry sold his portion of publishing and songwriting rights for $750 to the head of Flip Records in 1959.
While the title of the song is often rendered with a comma (“Louie, Louie”), in 1988 Berry told Esquire magazine that the correct title of the song was “Louie Louie”, with no comma.
Version by The Kingsmen
In the U.S. music industry of the 1950s and 1960s, mainstream white artists would often cover songs by black artists. On April 6, 1963, a rock and roll group from Portland, Oregon, called The Kingsmen, chose “Louie Louie” as their second recording, their first having been “Peter Gunn Rock.”
The Kingsmen recorded the song at Northwestern, Inc., Motion Pictures and Recording in Portland, Oregon. The group paid a small sum of $36 for a one-hour Saturday morning session. The session was produced by Ken Chase aka Mike Korgan. Chase was a local radio personality on the AM rock station 91 KISN and also owned the teen nightclub that hosted the Kingsmen as their house band. The engineer for the session was the studio owner, Robert Lindahl. The Kingsmen’s lead singer Jack Ely based his version on a 1961 recording of Berry’s tune by another band from the Pacific Northwest, Rockin’ Robin Roberts and the Fabulous Wailers (no relation to The Wailers headed by Bob Marley years later), unintentionally introducing a change in the rhythm as he did. “I showed the others how to play it with a 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3 beat instead of the 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4 beat that is on the (Wailers’) record,” recalled Ely. The night before their recording session, the band played a 90-minute version of the song during a gig at a local teen club.
The Kingsmen’s studio version was recorded in one take. They also recorded the “B” side of the release, an original instrumental by the group called “Haunted Castle”.
A significant error on the Kingsmen’s version occurs just after the lead guitar break. To some ears, singer Ely begins singing the verse in the correct place, but thinks he’s come in too soon, and pauses for another cycle of the riff. To others, he comes in too soon and corrects himself but the band doesn’t realize that he’s done so. Either way, drummer Lynn Easton covers the pause with a drum fill. But then, before the verse has ended, the rest of the band goes into the chorus at the point where they expect it to be. They recover quickly, but the confusion would seem to indicate that the rest of the band couldn’t hear the vocals while they were recording. This error is now so embedded in the consciousness of some groups that they deliberately duplicate it when performing the song. There is also a persistent and oft-repeated story that the microphone for Ely was mounted too high for him to sing without tilting his head back excessively, resulting in his somewhat pinched and strangled sound through most of his vocal. This seems unlikely, however, in view of the fact that it was recorded by professional personnel in a dedicated recording studio.
Regardless of accuracy or technique, the Kingsmen transformed Berry’s relatively easy-going ballad into a raucous romp, complete with a twangy guitar, occasional background chatter, and almost completely unintelligible lyrics by Ely. A chaotic guitar break is triggered by the shout, “Okay, let’s give it to ’em right now!”, which first appeared in the Wailers’ version. Critic Dave Marsh suggests it is this moment that gives the recording greatness: “[Ely] went for it so avidly you’d have thought he’d spotted the jugular of a lifelong enemy, so crudely that, at that instant, Ely sounds like Donald Duck on helium. And it’s that faintly ridiculous air that makes the Kingsmen’s record the classic that it is, especially since it’s followed by a guitar solo that’s just as wacky”.
Released in May 1963, the single entered the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for December 7, and peaked at number two the following week; it would remain in the top 10 through December and January before dropping off in early February. In total, the Kingsmen’s version spent sixteen weeks on the Hot 100. (Singles by The Singing Nun, then Bobby Vinton, monopolized the top slot for eight weeks.) “Louie Louie” did reach number one on the Cashbox pop chart, as well as number one on the Cashbox R&B chart. The version quickly became a standard at teen parties in the U.S. during the 1960s, even reappearing on the charts in 1966.
Another factor in the success of the record may have been the rumor that the lyrics were intentionally slurred by the Kingsmen. Allegedly, this was to cover the fact that it was laced with profanity, graphically depicting sex between the sailor and his lady. Crumpled pieces of paper professing to be “the real lyrics” to “Louie Louie” circulated among teens. The song was banned on many radio stations and in many places in the United States, including Indiana, where it was personally prohibited by the Governor, Matthew Welsh.
These actions were taken despite the small matter that practically no one could distinguish the actual lyrics. Denials of chicanery by Kingsmen and Ely did not stop the controversy. The FBI became involved in the controversy but concluded a 31-month investigation with a report that they were “unable to interpret any of the wording in the record.”
After a protracted lawsuit that lasted five years and cost $1.3 million dollars, The Kingsmen won the rights to their song “Louie Louie”. The Supreme Court in November 1998, declined to hear an appeal by the record company of an earlier legal ruling giving the rights to the band.
Paul Revere & The Raiders also recorded a version of “Louie Louie” in April 1963 in the same Portland studio as The Kingsmen. This recording was paid for and produced by 91 KISN Radio Personality Roger Hart, who soon became Personal Manager for Paul Revere & The Raiders. Initially, their single was more successful locally, put out on Hart’s SANDE label, then when signed to Columbia Records it was reissued in June 1963 nationally, where it went #1 in the West and Hawaii. The quick success of “Louie Louie” suddenly halted in the West. A few years later, Paul Revere & the Raiders learned why: Columbia Records A&R man Mitch Miller, who did not like rock n’ roll, pulled the plug on Paul Revere & The Raiders’ hit version.
Meanwhile, local sales of the Kingsmen record were so low (reportedly 600) that the group considered disbanding. Things changed when Boston’s biggest DJ, Arnie Ginsburg, was given the record by a pitchman. Amused by its slapdash sound, he played it on his program as “The Worst Record of the Week.” Despite the slam, listener response was swift and positive.
By the end of October, the Kingsmen’s version was listed in Billboard as a regional breakout and a “bubbling under” entry for the national chart. Meanwhile, the Raiders’ version, with far stronger promotion, was becoming a hit in California and was also listed as “bubbling under” one week after the Kingsmen’s debut on the chart. For a few weeks, the two singles appeared destined to battle each other, but demand for the Kingsmen single acquired momentum and, by the end of 1963, Columbia had stopped promoting the Raiders’ “Louie Louie”, per Columbia Records Mitch Miller. But Paul Revere’s band held the bragging rights in Portland, where they outsold the Kingsmen by a reported 10 to 1.
Robert Lindahl, then-president and chief engineer of NWI, and the sound engineer on the Kingsmen’s and Paul Revere & the Raiders’ noted that the Raiders’ version is not known for “garbled lyrics” or an amateurish recording technique. But despite these attributes, the single never seized the public’s attention the way the less-polished Kingsmen version had.
By the time that the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” had achieved national popularity, the band had split. Two rival editions — one featuring lead singer Ely, the other with Lynn Easton, who held the rights to the band’s name — were competing for live audiences across the country.
In February, 1964, an outraged parent wrote to Robert Kennedy, then the attorney general of the United States, alleging that the lyrics of “Louie Louie” were obscene. The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated the complaint. In June, 1965, the FBI laboratory obtained a copy of the recording and, after two years of investigation, concluded that the recording could not be interpreted, that it was “unintelligible at any speed,” and therefore the Bureau could not find that the recording was obscene. In September, 1965, an FBI agent interviewed one member of the Kingsmen. He denied that there was any obscenity in the song.
The lyrics controversy resurfaced briefly in 2005 when the superintendent of the school system in Benton Harbor, Michigan refused to let the marching band at one of the schools play the song in a parade. She later relented.
It is unknown exactly how many versions of “Louie Louie” have been recorded, but it is believed to be over 1,500, according to LouieLouie.net.
The Kingsmen version has remained the most popular version of the song, retaining its association with wild partying. It enjoyed a comeback in 1978-79 and was associated with college fraternity parties when it was sung, complete with the supposedly obscene lyrics, by Bluto (John Belushi) and his fellow Delta House brothers in the movie National Lampoon’s Animal House.
Following is a decade by decade survey of the song’s popularity and influence across a broad spectrum of popular music. The song’s continuing popularity helped Berry (who had retained his BMI rights) receive belated compensation for unpaid royalties.