Anyone out there remember Louie Louie? It was all the rage in the mid 60s, accompanied by a lot of speculation about dirty lyrics. No matter how close you press your ear to the radio, your chances of deciphering actual words were pretty much impossible. This factoid is burned into my memory because there was a moment when understanding those words became extremely important. That event took place in the back seat of a 1955 Oldsmobile.
For those of you not born during the early years of the baby boom, you have to understand how different high school was in the deep south Bible Belt, circa 1964. While hormones were exploding, culture and parental expectations required that if you saw a girl naked, you pretty much had to get married. Sexting was decades in the future. A teenage girl who gave even a partially nude photo to her boyfriend… Let’s just say she would likely be the topic of a sermon on Sunday.
That attitude made “making out” both wonderful and a form of extreme torture. Nice girls did not venture beyond making out, those that did would never speak about it for fear of having her reputation ruined. In small town high schools, reputation was everything.
Against that cultural backdrop, picture being parked in a quiet lovers lane on a cool spring evening, making out with your girlfriend and thinking about getting to second base. Louie Louie is playing on the radio, everything is perfect. Then, your girlfriend pauses, listens to the radio for a few seconds, and says “I heard the words are about taking advantage of a girl.”
That phrase, “taking advantage”, changes everything. The spell has been broken. Shattered. Because there is no way on earth you can translate those lyrics into something good, even if you had a clue what they really meant.
Now its a half century later, hearing Louie Louie again brings back memories of more innocent times. When being “fast” meant staying out past curfew, and when the consequences of being even slightly bad were enormous.
I did a search on Louie Louie, just for kicks, to finally see what the lyrics were. After all this time I found there was a whole lot of controversy I wasn’t even aware of when the song was popular. There was, for a while, an “International Louie Louie Day, celebrated on April 11. For those who remember Louie Louie, it seems like a good idea to post the original lyrics, along with one version of the dirty lyrics which were invented later, by other bands.
Revealing the origins
Louie Louie was written by R&B singer Richard Berry in 1955. His band, “The Pharaohs”, recorded and released it in 1957. It got some airplay on the band’s home turf around San Francisco, and became popular in the pacific northwest. It was covered by other garage bands and became a somewhat popular party tune in the western states.
In Berry’s original recording the lyric is quite clear: It’s a song is about a sailor who spends three days traveling to Jamaica to see his girl. The story is told to a bartender named Louie. Nothing even remotely obscene in that original version.
The version we all know and love was recorded by the Kingsmen on April 6, 1963 in Portland Oregon. The cover was not of the original Richard Berry recording, but a later version by Robin Roberts with his backing band “The Wailers.” The Robin Roberts version was released in 1961 and became a local hit in Tacoma, Washington.
For reasons lost in the mists of time, the Kingsmen’s recording session cost $50, and consisted of a single take. Legend suggests they thought that take was a rehearsal, or maybe a demo tape.
A different version of Louie Louie was also recorded the same week, in the same recording studio, by Paul Revere and the Raiders. The Raiders version is considered much better musically, but the Kingsmen’s version got all the glory.
The Kingsmen’s lead singer on Louie Louie was Jack Ely, whose birthday is April 11. That date became the basis for the widely celebrated “International Louie Louie Day.” It was the only time Ely recorded with the Kingsmen as lead vocalist. He left the band shortly after to return to school, or over a dispute about who was to be lead vocalist. Accounts vary. When the song became popular the band refused to take him back. The TV and concert performances the Kingsmen did during the tune’s most popular years were lip synced.
Louie Louie Goes Viral
Aside from being a great tune with impossible to decipher lyrics, there were a few other factors that helped the song garner national attention.
A popular Boston disc jockey selected Louie Louie as the “Worst song of the week”, and gave it air play. Boston listeners loved it, and its popularity only increased.
Once the rumors of dirty lyrics got started, many radio stations banned it. Governor Matthew Welsh of Indiana declared Louie Louie pornographic and banned it statewide.
It’s interesting that Indiana is the news again for its intolerance.
Being labeled as obscene gave it official Forbidden Fruit status, and the song’s popularity went ballistic. Then the FBI, and by some accounts, J. Edgar personally, got involved. They launched a 30 month investigation to uncover the diabolical obscenities, and who was responsible for them. The investigation went nowhere. They finally concluded that the lyrics were undecipherable. You just couldn’t ask for better PR.
Rock critic Dave Marsh summed it up with this comment:
So there you have it. In 1963 a local band recorded what they hoped would be a demo, hoping they could get a few gigs outside of their regular show at a local teen hangout. But the stars aligned in a most peculiar way and that two minute and forty two second recording went on to sweep the nation. Louie Louie arguably became the most covered song of all time. More than 1600 versions are known. It was the last number one song on Cashbox before Beatlemania. It likely inspired a thousand garage bands to follow in their footsteps. More than 50 years later, it still sounds pretty cool.