In the winter of 1963-64, a team of FBI agents spent their days hunched over portable record players, struggling to decode a message that threatened the morality of America’s youth. It wasn’t from the Russians or Castro, but a band of white-bread Portland teenagers called The Kingsmen.
“J. Edgar Hoover felt we were corrupting the moral fiber of America’s youth,” Mike Mitchell, guitarist and founding member of The Kingsmen, tells me. “The FBI guys came to our shows, and they’d stand next to the speakers to see if we were singing anything off-color. It was a different time.”
“'Louie Louie' was kept out of the Number One spot on the charts by the Singing Nun,” recalls Kingsmen keyboardist Don Gallucci. “That ought to tell you the mentality of the country back then. I thought, ‘Gee, I know the lyrics. What’s the deal?’ It never occurred to me how repressed teenagers were sexually. They were hearing all this stuff in the song. That was the state of America. The genie was getting out of the bottle.”
The infamous party song jumped out of the bottle in 1956. Penned by L.A. songwriter Richard Berry, the sailor’s lament had the singer pouring out his lovelorn heart to a bartender, Louie, over the girl he left across the ocean. The song includes couplets like “On the ship I dream she there / I smell the rose in her hair.”
Berry’s record was a moderate success around the Pacific northwest. But in 1959, needing money for his upcoming marriage, he sold the copyright of “Louie Louie” to a publisher for $750.
The song was revived in 1961 by Seattle’s Rockin’ Robin Roberts and the Wailers, in a much more raucous version. While it failed to chart nationally, it introduced the tune’s possibilities to local groups like The Kingsmen.
“It became like a northwest national anthem,” Gallucci says. “If you were auditioning for a nightclub, you had to be able to play ‘Louie Louie’ or they wouldn’t hire you.”
The Kingsmen cut a version of the song, which became a local hit. Then in one of those moments that only happened in the early ‘60s, a DJ in Boston named “Woo Woo” Ginsburg locked himself in a studio and spun The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” for three hours straight on the air. The phones lit up; 20,000 copies were sold in a week.
At the same time it started breaking out as a national hit, the rumors began. As with any urban legend, it’s impossible to trace the origin. But the story was that The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” concealed “dirty” words that could be deciphered only by playing the 45 rpm single at 33 1/3. Soon, kids across the country were comparing notes on who was doing what to whom in the song.
The lyric was hard to make out. The pidgin English in Berry’s original had been rendered even more incomprehensible by a few factors. The night before they recorded it, The Kingsmen had played a marathon gig, which left lead singer Jack Ely’s voice in ragged condition. In the studio, the boom microphone was fixed too high for Ely, who had to stand on his tiptoes to reach it. His diction wasn’t helped by the braces on his teeth. On top of all that, what the band thought was a rehearsal run-through turned out to be the only take of the song.
The uproar over “Louie Louie” reached fever pitch in the spring of 1964. First, the song was banned from the airwaves in the entire state of Indiana. And then, stoked by a wave of complaints from parents, teachers and clergymen (where would rock ‘n’ roll be without them?), the FBI began an investigation into the supposed obscene lyrical content. The thought of Hoover’s G-Men bent over hi-fis, struggling to decode a half-speed version of the song, is pretty funny.
Giving Up [via The Smoking Gun]
Though they would abandon their inquiry in 1965, many of the transcriptions of what they thought they heard in the lyric are now declassified government documents. Couplets like “And on that chair, I lay her there / I felt my bone-ah in her hair” perhaps say more about the overworked FBI agents than The Kingsmen.
Richard Berry’s comment at the time was, “If I told you the words, you wouldn’t believe them anyway.”
The Real Lyrics [via The Smoking Gun]
The song’s original chart run was only the beginning. The single was re-released for three consecutive years, charting again in 1966. Over the next 10 years, it became the lingua franca for garage bands around the world.
By 1978, when John Belushi belted it out in Animal House, the song had been recorded in over 800 versions and translated into 20 different languages. In 1983, Rhino Records released The Best of Louie Louie, a whole record dedicated to one song (Volume 2 followed five years later). By 2000, the song had thoroughly inundated every aspect of pop culture, appearing in major motion pictures, TV shows, cartoons and commercials, in novels and nonfiction (rock critic Dave Marsh wrote an entire book about the song), and even in the work of one modern painter. There are several Louie Louie bars, cafes and restaurants around the world, as well as a mixed drink that bears the name.
Finally, there was a happy ending for songwriter Richard Berry. In 1992, Berry regained the rights to his song. The following year, he got his first royalty check for it—in the amount of $2 million. He passed away five years later.
In 1993, the Kingsmen emerged from their own long court battle, with ownership of their Louie Louie master, which they had naively signed away back in 1964. Fronted by Mike Mitchell, the group still plays about thirty dates a year on the oldies circuit.
Mitchell says, “The whole record was a fluke really. It’s taken on its own life and still has its own life. It’s nice to be associated with it after all these years.”
Don Gallucci adds, “There was a raw honesty and intensity about it. A kind of punk push. It caught a kind of raucous energy that people were really dying for.”