Singer of “Louie, Louie” dies at 71

May 1, 2015 • 9:45 am

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the classic rock song “Louie, Louie,” by the Kingsmen (it was actually written by Richard Berry and first recorded by him in 1957). It was 1963, and a friend and I had hiked from one Army base to another in Germany, where my dad was stationed. I had a transistor radio (remember them!) and heard the song whjile we were eating sandwiches at an impromptu picnic.

I couldn’t make out the words, but later everyone said they were FILTHY. And indeed, if you listened carefully, and kept your mind in the gutter, you could hear all kinds of smutty stuff. Have a listen:

Some of the older readers might remember the kerfuffle about this song.  In reality, it wasn’t a dirty song at all; the lyrics are here, and, as Wikipedia notes, “It tells, in simple verse–chorus form, the first-person story of a Jamaican sailor returning to the island to see his lady love.”

I won’t recount how I interpreted the garbled lyrics, but, according to the April 29 New York Times, reporting the death of the singer Jack Ely, the ambiguity came from the song’s poor quality:

Mr. Ely persuaded the Kingsmen and the band’s manager to record the song. They booked the Northwestern Inc. studio in Portland for an hour on April 6, 1963.

“It was more yelling than singing ’cause I was trying to be heard over all the instruments,” Mr. Ely recalled, according to Peter Blecha, a music historian, in his book “Sonic Boom! The History of Northwest Rock: From ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ ” (2009). He also began the third verse a few bars too soon and paused while the band caught up.

In an interview with the Oregon newspaper The Bend Bulletin in 1987, Mr. Ely recalled: “I stood there and yelled while the whole band was playing, and when it was over, we hated it. We thought it was a totally non-quality recording.”

Despite the song being completely innocuous, it was banned on many U.S. radio stations—even though it went to #2 on the charts— and was even subject to an FBI investigation. As the Times reports:

The F.B.I. began investigating after an Indiana parent wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1964: “My daughter brought home a record of ‘LOUIE LOUIE’ and I, after reading that the record had been banned on the air because it was obscene, proceeded to try to decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter.”

The F.B.I. Laboratory’s efforts at decryption were less fruitful. After more than two years and a 455-page report, the bureau concluded that “three governmental agencies dropped their investigations because they were unable to determine what the lyrics of the song were, even after listening to the records at speeds ranging from 16 r.p.m. to 78 r.p.m.”

Mr. Berry’s words, with a first verse that begins, “Fine little girl she wait for me/Me catch the ship for ’cross the sea,” are in fact completely benign. Whatever obscenities people thought they heard, the Kingsmen’s version hewed closely to the original — lyrically if not musically.

There’s a slight religious angle here, too. The Times notes the cause of death as this:

Mr. Ely died on Tuesday at 71 at his home in Redmond, Ore. His son Sean said that Mr. Ely was a Christian Scientist and had not sought treatment, but that he believed the cause was skin cancer.

People keep on dying because of that faith’s ridiculous belief that disease is merely a manifestation of incorrect thinking.

(From the NYT): The Kingsmen, from left, Don Gallucci, Jack Ely, Lynn Easton, Mike Mitchell and Bob Nordby. Credit Gino Rossi.

h/t: Betsy

31 thoughts on “Singer of “Louie, Louie” dies at 71

  1. I well remember a dorm mate and I trying to decipher those words ( I think in 1965).

    Were you in Berchtesgaden, by chance? We used to drive from Vienna to go to the very inexpensive ski resort there, and also shop at the PX ( where, incidentally, we could buy the records we heard on Radio Luxembourg and, iccasionally, AFN).

    1. Heidelberg, though we traveled widely, both with my parents and when I was on the wrestling team and we’d have meets with other American military high schools. So I did go to B-gaden.

  2. My wife remembers the controversy on the song but I do not. I’m 3 months younger than you so that’s probably it.

    Could it be that you attended DOD schools in Germany?

  3. Christian Science? ug. Perhaps there ought to be a word for people who die as a result of their religious or pseudo-scientific refusal of science-based medicine. The coroner shouldn’t put ‘cancer’ as cause of death, religious suicide, maybe, or just plain stupidity. A sad waste.

    In other music news, I just got a BBC news update on my phone saying that Ben E. King has also died.

  4. The reference to Christian Scientists reminds me to recommend Paul Offit’s latest book, Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine. Nominally accommodationist but, man, he has a hard time pulling that off!

  5. Now that you cleared up the “Louie, Louie” lyrics for us, maybe you could look into the whole “pompatus of love” mystery.

      1. Okay, it takes you to a page saying “Page Not Found.” Type “pompatus” into the search engine on that page, then click on the second option on the next page.

        1. I particularly like “Oh my darling, let me whisper sweet words of [something like epismetology]…”

          OK, so Pizmotality was one of Vernon Green’s made-up words, but epistemology would work even better as pillow-talk.

  6. ‘I had a transistor radio (remember them!)’

    Last I heard of one of those, it was haunted by Michael Shermer’s dead Teutophone father-in-law.

    1. “Last I heard of one ..”

      Show me a fairly modern radio that is NOT a transistor radio, and I will be impressed! 😉

  7. Jerry, you may know of Dave Marsh’s book about the song, which includes (I think–I haven’t read it) a part about the “dirty” lyrics as well as much else. It’s still in print: ISBN-13: 978-1562828653

  8. I read a book on Louie Louie a long time ago and learned that Richard Berry got almost nothing for one of the most covered songs in the history of the world. J. Edgar Hoover was totally obsessed with the idea the Kingsmen version was obscene and he had 2 FBI agents listening to it backwards and forwrds for months but got notning. How much did America waste on that one! I really liked the Kingsmen, they were a fun band.

    1. Guess old J. Edgar had some extra time on his hands — what with him turning a blind eye to Organized Crime, and there not being enough dues-paying Commies in the country to keep The Party afloat if it weren’t for undercover FBI agents. (And how much time can you spend, really, on regular pastimes like Jew-baiting, homo-bashing, and harassing Civil Rights leaders? Well, there was that steady gig blackmailing Presidents, too.)

      I’d say something about him listening to the Kingsmen while flouncing around in his black chiffon dress, but then you’d have to scrub you’re mind’s eye with Brillo pads to get that image out.

      Think I’ll go play that imbedded “Louie, Louie” video one more time.

    2. The comedy panel show QI has a short explanation, and audio comparison between the two interpretations of the lyrics, in the episode ‘Lumped Together’. It’s quite funny.

  9. Re: Christian Science and disease– There seems to be just enough truth to the idea that some health problems may be induced or aggravated by stress to keep the idea of “mind cure” from dying out. But as far as things like cancer are concerned it’s worthless.

  10. “People keep on dying because of that faith’s ridiculous belief that disease is merely a manifestation of incorrect thinking.”

    Admittedly, their deaths are manifestations of incorrect thinking, namely putting adherence to religious cant and dogma over evidence-based medical treatment.

  11. Somewhere around here I have many hours of tapes from a Maximum Louie event at Foothill College on San Francisco peninsula in the mid-80s — I think they started on Friday and went until everyone collapsed on Sunday. Hilarious on-air interview with Ely as they tried to get him to fly down, and he dickered for money. Can’t get enough Louie. Richard Berry showed up soon after that to sign a Louie collection LP; I caught up with him at Tower Records in Montain View CA. Didn’t seem so at the time, but things were simpler and “better” maybe, even though Ronnie Raygun was president….

    1. I listened to that Louie Louie marathon as well while living in San Jose. Fun times. And I enjoyed some of the truly non-commercial material I heard on that station, such as the entire Residents’ Eskimo lp.

  12. The song brings back memories. I once won the title of ‘Elvis Presley’s Illegitimate Child’ at a ‘Helga, Helga, Helga and their other sister, Helga’ Oktoberfest event held in Saudi Arabia (of all places) when I sang the lyrics of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ to the ‘Louie Louie’ melody line. Who better than the Kingsmen to sing the praises of The King?

  13. I can’t decipher them at all. I’m amazed at all the stupid things the FBI got up to in those days.

    It reminds me a lot of the song, The Game of Love by Wayne Fontana “The purpose of a man is to love a woman, and the purpose of a woman is to love a man …”, which I really like.

  14. Fascinating long read about a (bigtime, as in billions) con man who claims to be the actual songwriter of “Louie Louie”… and somehow got the surviving members of the Kingsmen to agree to go along with his ruse! (Scroll down for embedded videos of them letting him jam with them on stage.)

    1. Oops, my memory was spotty. He actually claims to be the “lead singer” not the songwriter.

  15. After the song had been a hit for a while there was a Louie Louie dance that many of us learned. Years & years later it reappeared, this time called the Macarena!

    Also, I’ve heard this story more than once about there being in fact one swear word on the recording, though not from Ely:

    For all the rumored dirtiness of the song, there is only one actual curse word in The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.” Just after these lyrics are sung (at around 0:53), drummer Lynn Easton shouts “Fuck!” after missing a cue.

  16. I read an interview with Ely in which he said that another problem with the recording was that the sound engineer positioned the mike above Ely’s head. So, he had to stand on his toes and shout the lyrics upwards with his head thrown all the way back. He also had braces at the time, which didn’t help.

    The FBI’s final report on the song said “The lyrics are uninterpretable at any speed.”

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