April 6, 2013

The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” Turns 50, Read the FBI File

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On April 6th, 1963 Portland group the Kingsmen recorded “Louie, Louie” in just two takes. By their own accounts the sloppy second take probably shouldn’t have been good enough, but their manager was happy with it as it was, and so that was that. Or… that was just the beginning. Probably no other tossed off recording would go on to have such an interesting history that would involve politics, the FBI and an outright ban by radio stations across the nation.

“Louie Louie” was wasn’t a Kingsmen original, but a popular standard among Northwest teen dance bands in the early sixties. Every band had their own rendition of the crowd favorite, a repetitive jam so popular that the Kingsmen would play it multiple times a night. The Fabulous Wailers had a regional hit with the song a few years earlier, and their sped up version of the Richard Berry original would be the prototype for it’s popularity among the early sixties Northwest dance bands. In truth the Kingsmen version was pretty unprofessional, and it’s initially tepid radio reception was probably reflective of that and the fact that Paul Revere and the Raiders had their own recording of the song out at the same time on the national Columbia label. But with the help of Jerry Dennon’s local Jerden Records, and then Wand Records to take it beyond the Northwest, by January of 1964 the rock n’ roll record had scooted past the Raiders’ version nationally and would climb to Billboard’s number 2 position and competing chart Cashbox’s number 1 position.

As the record initially floundered in 1963, the band’s lead singer Jack Ely refused to give up his singing duties to the drummer (who had legal possession of the name “The Kingsmen”) and subsequently departed the band. As the single gained traction Ely tried to patch things up and put the band back together with the former drummer but animosities would keep him out of the band as the song reached it’s peak and the increasingly large audiences would be disappointing not to see the original singer of the smash recording.

After topping the charts, in a most unexpected turn Indiana Governor Matthew Walsh followed by a few other states would deem the single “obscene” for what they imagined the unintelligible singing of Ely might be saying. Kids would compare notes about the different lyrics that might emerge when the 45 was played at alternate RPM’s. Despite the Kingmen’s own protestations to the contrary, Wand stoked the flames of controversy by offering a reward to anyone who could prove the lyrics were risque in a move to jack up sales even more. Election year antics would kick off an FBI investigation of the song’s possible lewd messages, an investigation that ultimately “discovered no evidence of obscenity.”

Read that FBI file online and take a gander below the fold at a few of the many renditions of the song from over the years (in chronological order), including Richard Berry’s original.

1 Comment

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  1. Ryan #

    Great article!

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