The Heart of Rock and Soul
Dave Marsh, 1989
Really stupid, really great. Not really dirty, but so what?
"Louie Louie" is the most profound and sublime expression of rock and roll's ability to create something from nothing. Built up from a Morse code beat and a "dub duh dub" refrain, with scratchy lead vocal, tacky electric piano, relentless rhythm guitar, and drums that sound like the guy who's playing 'em isn't sure what comes next, "Louie Louie" scales the heights of trash rock to challenge the credentials of all latter-day rockers: If you don't love it, you've missed the point of the whole thing.
Naturally, this Parthenon of Pop didn't spring from the head of the Muse. A Muse would probably have slain it on sight, or passed away herself from the shock of something so crude and fine. "Louie Louie" was born in much more prosaic circumstances, as the B side of "You Are My Sunshine," an R&B version of the Jimmie Davis country standard recorded by Richard Berry and the Pharoahs and released on Flip Records in 1956. Berry was a veteran Los Angeles session singer who'd sung lead on the Robins ' "Riot in Cell Block #9," the first big hit for producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The Pharoahs were Berry's cohorts of the day, Flip his patron of the moment.
"You Are My Sunshine" made only a small buzz but when L.A. deejay Hunter Hancock flipped it to play "Louie," the disc still sold a respectable 130,000 copies. Its notoriety was great enough to earn Berry a rocker's reputation and afterward, he toured with more rugged blues acts like Bobby Bland and Junior Parker for the next couple of years. "I was there to attract white audiences," he said.
"Louie Louie" had variegated parentage. Berry had been working with a Latin band, Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers, every Saturday night in 1955. The Rhythm Rockers were a twelve-piece orchestra that did a tune called "El Loco Cha Cha," a local hit by Rene Touzet. Berry borrowed "El Loco"'s "duh duh duh" opening riff. Around the same time, Chuck Berry, to whom Richard Berry is related only spiritually, had released "Havana Moon," the story of a guy trying to get back to his home in Cuba. So Richard Berry decided to tell the story of a guy yearning to get back to his home and his girl in Jamaica. He must also have been aware of "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," a song written as a dialogue with a bartender named Joe, which had been a hit for Lena Horne in 1945. Berry named his bartender Louie, which was rather odd, for neither the protagonist nor his girl were named at all. Where he derived the idea of singing in Jamaican patois, who knows? Harry Belafonte's "Jamaica Farewell" didn't kick off the calypso craze until October 1956 and "Louie Louie" was cut in April.
In those days, there was no rock criticism and the coterie of those who suspected that rhythm and blues might have lasting value included almost no one who didn't know Ahmet Ertegun personally. Unsold copies of local hits were destroyed or sold for pennies to be recycled in "bargain bins" for a quarter or a dime. In 1960, aspiring star Rockin' Robin Roberts found a copy of "Louie Louie" in a Seattle bargain bin.
Roberts understood the genius of "Louie Louie" and adopted it as.a sort of theme in his various bands. In 1961, he cut it for a local label, Etiquette, backed by the Wailers (who had an instrumental hit with "Tall Cool One" in 1959). History, bitch that she is, has denied Roberts the immortality he deserves for recognizing the song's gutter magnificence, and for being the first to interject the squaw1 "Let's give it to 'em, right now!" But his version was nonetheless picked up by bands all around the Northwest and "Louie Louie" became a regional standard, in the repertoire of every halfways talented area group. (The Sonics cut a particularly ferocious version as well as a nasty take on Berry's follow-up rewrite of the "Louie" riff, "Have Love, Will Travel. ")
By 1963, Portland, Oregon's rival bands, Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Kingsmen, both featured "Louie" and their audiences constantly demanded it. On a Friday in May, the Kingsmen finally gave in and did an all - "Louie Louie" set; the song went on for forty-five minutes, becoming the first "Louie" marathon. The band was bored but the crowd went wild. Next day, the Kingsmen went into the studio with local disc jockey Ken Chase and cut their version. On Sunday, the Raiders followed them to cut theirs.
Both groups based their records on Roberts's version; they'd probably never so much as heard of the Pharoahs. The Raiders basically just replicated the Seattle rendition, with one brilliant addition at the top, when Revere yowled "Grab your woman! It's 'Louie Louie' time." The Kingsmen's version was quite a bit different, mostly (it turns out) because singer Jack Ely learned the song by listening a couple of times to a jukebox 45, and he got the beat wrong. Thus the Kingsmen play l-2-3, 1-2, l-2-3, 1-2, rather than the more orthodox l-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4, 1-2 of all the earlier versions. (In the process they helped invent reggae; just listen to Toots and the Maytals' early seventies "Louie" on their album Funky Kingston.)
What Ely remembered right and even improved upon, though, was Roberts's shout just before the guitar break: "Give it to 'em, right now!" He went for it so avidly you'd have thought he'd spotted the jugular of a lifelong enemy, and, at the same time, 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.
Teenage Portland took both of the new records of its favorite song to heart but deejays held the Kingsmen's a little nearer. After a Boston R&B jock also started airing it, the Kingsmen's disc was picked up for national distribution by the New York-based Wand label. (The Raiders eventually wound up with a Columbia Records contract and a sizable regional hit on the West Coast.)
Now Ely's vocal was so garbled -- he didn't know the words well, and the mike was suspended too far above his head for him to sing into it properly -- that it approached total unintelligibility. As airplay increased, rumors circulated that the Kingsmen muffled the vocal because the song was really obscene. The details are too unlikely to be worth reciting completely, but as I recall they centered on interpreting "Me think of girl constantly" as "Me fuck that girl all kinds of ways," and "I smell the rose in her hair" as "I stick mah bone in her there," Or something like that. Allegedly, these "true" lyrics could only be heard at some other speed - 33 or 78 or 16. (Don't bother.)
The rumors caused a moral panic in Indiana when the governor banned "Louie " from the state's airwaves. Soon, the FCC and FBI were investigating, grilling both Richard Berry and Jack Ely (who'd been bounced from the Kingsmen). The Feds eventually came to a closer-to-correct conclusion: "unintelligible at any speed."
At this stage, "Louie Louie" had already passed into legend, becoming the greatest example of rock's function as a secret language for its audience. Whatever Ely sang that Saturday afternoon, what his audience believed it heard was far more important and powerful. The record stayed at the top of the charts for four months, and returned for another brief run in the spring of 1966.
In the wake of the rumors, "Louie Louie" became the party band staple of the sixties. More than three hundred versions were recorded, and in 1966 the Sandpipers took it back to the charts with a folk-rock Muzak version with the lyrics translated into Spanish. In 1978, John Belushi's version from the soundtrack of Animal House brought "Louie" into circulation again. At last, in the early and mid-eighties a couple of California radio stations, KALX in Berkeley and KFJC in Los Altos Hills, staged "Louie Louie " marathons lasting several days each, featuring all sorts of oddball renditions by famous musicians and local losers. In the late eighties, a Philadelphia disc jockey, John DelBella, began organizing "Louie" parades with proceeds going to victims of leukemia -- the "Louie" disease.
In 1985, the Washington state legislature voted down a resolution to make "Louie" the state song, but in the hearts and minds of true rock and rollers, it has already achieved far greater stature. In versions made by everybody from the Beach Boys to Barry White to the punks down the block, "Louie Louie" is a true national anthem. Nobody has ever come close to topping the Kingsmen's version and nobody ever will. If you don't believe me . . .
"Let's give it to 'em. Right now!".