Louie, Louie

Louie, Louie is quite a song, and it has a rich history to go with it.

A 21-year-old black man by the name of Richard Berry had been a part of the music scene in Los Angeles for quite some time. In the Summer of 1956 he found himself singing with a band called Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers at the Harmony Park Ballroom in Anaheim. The band launched into an instrumental version of El Loco Cha Cha, an obscure song that the Rhythm Rockers knew but with which Berry was unfamiliar. He liked the driving rhythm of the song [duh duh duh, duh duh] and went out and bought the record the next day, as performed by an artist named Rene Touzet. Borrowing from the Latin rhythm of El Loco Cha Cha, he wrote some words about a Jamaican sailor who was bemoaning being away from his girlfriend. The song was written as if the narrator is talking to someone else, perhaps a bartender, about how much he misses his girl. The title Richard Berry chose for his composition, taken from the name of the person to whom the story is being told, was Louie, Louie.

Through a circuitous route the song made its way up the West Coast to the Great Northwest several years later. A garage band called The Wailers, fronted by an intelligent, tough singer named Rockin' Robin Roberts recorded it and got some airplay on some local and regional radio stations, where it was somewhat of a hit. Rockin' Robin Roberts is credited with adding one line to the song that many Louie fanatics particularly enjoy: 'OK, let's give it to 'em right now.!' A couple more years passed, and someone found The Wailers' recording in a bargain bin at a record store. There were a number of popular groups in the Washington/Idaho/Oregon area who were on the verge of emerging onto the national scene in one form or another in the 60's: The Ventures, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Merilee Rush and the Turnabouts, Jimi Hendrix, and The Kingsmen, to name a few. Some of them began to pick up on Louie, Louie. The song became enormously popular regionally.

Two groups in particular began playing it in their concert appearances: The Kingsmen from the Portland, Oregon area and Paul Revere and the Raiders, a group that was originally formed in Idaho but traveled extensively across the region. The Kingsmen had formed in Portland in 1960 and consisted of Lynn Easton on drums, Mike Mitchell on guitar, Don Gallucci on keyboards, Bob Nordby on bass, and guitar player and lead singer Jack Ely. By the time they recorded Louie, Louie, they ranged in age from 17 to 20. On a Friday night in April, 1963, The Kingsmen performed at an outdoor concert and did a marathon version of the song, and the crowd couldn't get enough of it. The following morning, according to lead singer Jack Ely, they went to a small recording studio in Portland called Northwest Recorders to do the song. Paul Revere & The Raiders recorded the song in the same studio the same month, but it was The Kingsmen's version that was destined for greatness.

Ely had only heard the song a few times before that session, and the microphone was hanging in an odd position above his head at the time he sang it. Perhaps these factors combined to make the song as popular as it was. Because, as any rock-and-roll fan will tell you, you can't understand the words to Louie, Louie. And that is what makes it so intriguing.

The Kingsmen had been formed by group leader/drummer Lynn Easton, whose parents were good friends with Ely's parents. After the song was released and began to pick up in popularity, Easton suggested that the two reverse roles, with Easton as lead singer and Ely as the drummer, even though Ely was not much of a drummer [and neither was Easton, for that matter]. Things came to a head, with the end result that Ely left and formed his own group.

Louie, Louie was played on radio stations in the Northwest and somehow was picked up in Boston and played there. It entered the Billboard charts on November 30, 1963. Other songs that were popular at the time included Deep Purple by Nino Tempo & April Stevens [a brother and sister act who were originally from upstate New York], I'm Leaving It Up To You by Dale & Grace [the number 1 song on the day President Kennedy was assassinated], Dominique by The Singing Nun, and There! I've Said It Again by Bobby Vinton. The Beatles were just around the corner. Louie, Louie remained on the charts for thirteen weeks, peaking at number 2. It may be the best rock-and-roll song ever that failed to reach number 1.

And everyone was wondering: just what is that guy saying? Rumors began to spread [and they persist to this day] that Louie, Louie is a dirty song. That the words were filthy. Well, let's address that right here. The fact is, the words are not dirty at all. It's just a simple little song derived from a Latin beat. But try telling some people in early 60's America that. Governor Matthew Welch of Indiana had the song banned from the airwaves in his state, because of the alleged dirty lyrics. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI actually investigated the song, determining that no one could say definitively from listening to the recording just what the words are. Since that time some lists of alleged dirty lyrics have been circulated, but none of them are the original, because the original lyrics are clean as a whistle.

The Kingsmen put a few more songs on the charts. The only one that made it to the Top Ten was Jolly Green Giant in 1965. [Jolly Green Giant was a re-recording of The Olympics' Big Boy Pete, with different lyrics that refer to a character from a television commercial that was popular at the time; Jack Ely was long gone and Easton, who does not sing nearly as well as Ely, did the vocals.] John Belushi and friends resurrected Louie, Louie in the 1978 movie National Lampoon's Animal House, but they obviously couldn't figure the words out either! Richard Berry died in Los Angeles in January, 1997. Jack Ely tours on the oldies circuit. I have seen him perform, and he's a lot of fun, but you still can't tell exactly what he's saying when he sings Louie, Louie! I met Jack Ely once, and I can tell you that he's a real nice guy. A book was written about the song in the early 90's, and it is available in most libraries. It is called Louie, Louie, by Dave Marsh.

The Kingsmen are one of the great garage bands from the early days of Rock-and-Roll. Those were the days when a group of friends could get together, go to a small studio, and come up with a hit song [unlike the present time, when nearly everything is controlled by the giant recording companies]. And Louie, Louie, a staple of nearly every marching band in the United States and a song that has been recorded numerous times by many different artists, has become a legend.

Just what was Jack Ely saying when he sang Louie, Louie? Well, as originally written by Richard Berry, here it is:

Fine little girl she waits for me
Me catch the ship for cross the sea
Me sail the ship all alone
Me never think me make it home

Louie, Louie, me gotta go
Louie, Louie, me gotta go

Three nights and days me sail the sea
Me think of girl constantly
On the ship I dream she there
I smell the rose in her hair

Louie, Louie, me gotta go
Louie, Louie, me gotta go

Me see Jamaica moon above
It won't be long, me see my love,
I take her in my arms and then
Me tell her I never leave again

Louie, Louie, me gotta go
Louie, Louie, me gotta go

Most Recent Update: April 20, 2000

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