The song goes back to 1957 with the release of Rene Touzet’s“El Loco Cha Cha.” Berry had heard the song, and it gave him the idea for the famous opening riff of “Louie Louie.”
The lyrics of the song came to Berry as he was thinking about the song, “One for my Baby, (and one for the road.)” In this song, the person singing is talking to their bartender and telling the story of their failed romance. Berry’s favorite bartender was named Louie. At the time, Chuck Berry had a song out called “Havana Moon” that influenced Richard to apply the patois of Jamaica.
Richard Berry recorded his song on the B-side of “You Are My Sunshine” in 1957. The recording was a small hit on the west coast. Later, he released “Louie Louie” as the A-side.
I suddenly realized that talking about A and B sides doesn’t mean anything anymore. Before CDs and the Internet, we had albums. These were flat discs of vinyl that looked a lot like huge CDs, except they were usually black. You could play each side of the album, and each side held a little over 15 minutes of music. These albums were played at the speed of 33 revolutions per minute in order to achieve the correct notes and tempo that the artist had recorded.
I remember larger, thicker albums that were played at 78 rpms, and most stereos would also play at 15 rpms. When I was a kid, we could play albums at the wrong speed and thought that was fun, either slowing everything down or making everyone sound like The Chipmunks.
But, when I talk about A and B sides, I am talking about 45s. These were smaller discs that held only one song per side. They were cheaper to buy than full albums, and as a pre-teen, I had a larger collection of 45s than I did albums. The A-side was the one that the record company marketed as a hit. The B-side was often just a space saver. Occasionally, the B-side became the hit, or, particularly in the case of The Beatles, they were often both considered A-sides, meaning both songs were hits.
So, Richard Berry’s version of “Louie Louie” was both an A- and B-side. But, sadly, it never really went very far, so in 1959 Berry sold all the rights to the song for $750. (Which would be about $6520 in 2019.)
In 1961, Rockin’ Robin Roberts released “Louie Louie” as the A-side of a 45. But it never charted and went away as quietly as it had arrived. However, he sped the song up and added some energy to the mix.
The song rested in obscurity for a couple of years, reemerging in 1963 as the A-side of a recording by The Kingsmen, a group out of Portland, Oregon. None of them had any idea how to record a rock song. They set up the band in a circle with the lead singer, Jack Ely, in the center. The microphone was suspended from the ceiling and was so high up that Ely had to crane his neck and all but shout the song.
There are several notable mistakes in the song. At one point, the drummer drops a drumstick and shouts out the F-bomb. At another point, Ely comes in early. The band is unaware, and the drummer covers it up while they keep going. All this remains in the recording, as they only had one take. All of this, combined with the patois that the lyrics were written in, make the song all-but unintelligible.
Only a couple of weeks after The Kingsmen recorded their version of the song, another group, Paul Revere and the Raiders, recorded the song as well, but this time for Columbia Records. Both versions were released at roughly the same time. The Paul Revere and the Raidersversion was doing well on the west coast when the head of A&R at Columbia, Mitch Miller, ordered that they stop marketing the song.
Mitch Miller had made a name for himself with a choral group that had a show calledSing Along with Mitch, where they performed watered-down versions of popular songs with the lyrics being shown at the bottom of the screen. Miller hated rock and roll, and so pulled the plug on “Louie Louie.”
Meanwhile, The Kingsmen’s version of the song was gaining traction and notoriety. Because of the garbled lyrics, it was believed that the words must be obscene. Parents were writing to J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous head of the FBI, and to Robert Kennedy, the then-Attorney General, complaining about the song. Hoover actually set FBI agents to the task of listening to the record to try and make out the words. Agents were playing the record at all of the available speeds to see if that helped. They also played it in reverse! At no point did they ask the band or even the writer what they were singing. This insanity went on for four years! (This was our tax dollars at work.) This excitement resulted in the song being banned by several stations across the country, which only increased its popularity.
I remember my best friend and I trying to figure out what the lyrics were. Her parents had a Beach Boys album with their cover of “Louie Louie.” The first two verses were easy to make out. But when it came time for the 3rd verse, the background vocals were louder, the instruments were louder, and the lead singer was very muffled. We were very confused. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that The Beach Boys had recorded it that way to titillate the listener.
“Louie Louie” is one of the most covered rock songs ever. I’ve read articles that put Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”as the most covered song, and I’ve read articles that place “Louie Louie”in that spot. They are very different songs, so perhaps there are other qualifiers involved.
What is your favorite version of “Louie Louie?” Do you remember “Louie Louie” being performed in the movie Animal House? I'll be playing some of these on my Minnich MusicFacebook page, so check those out.
Until next time!