In 1955, Richard Berry wrote a song about a Jamaican sailor returning to his island to see his lady love. It’s a ballad, a conversation in the first person singular, with a bartender. The bartender’s name is Louie.
The song was covered in Latin and R&B styles in the fifties, but was never more than a regional hit on the west coast.
“Mainstream” white artists of the fifties and sixties often covered songs written by black artists. On April 6, 1963, an obscure rock & roll group out of Portland, Oregon covered the song, renting a recording studio for $50. They were The Kingsmen.
Lead singer Jack Ely showed the band how he wanted it played. Berry’s easy 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4 ballad would be changed to a raucous 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3 beat.
The guitar work could only be described as anarchic, the lyrics unintelligible. The Kingsmen recorded the song in a single take. It was released by a small label in May and re-released by Wand Records in October, 1963. Sales of the single increased through the 15th of November, the song entering the Billboard Top 100 chart on December 7.
Rock & Roll music is so mainstream now, that it’s hard to remember how subversive and decadent it was considered to be.
Louie Louie’s impenetrable lyrics led to all kinds of speculation about what was being said. More than a few imaginations ran wild. Fabricated lyrics ranging from mildly raunchy to pornographic were written out on slips of paper and exchanged between teenagers, spurring interest in the song and driving record sales through the roof.
Concerned parents contacted government authorities to see what could be done. One parent, a Sarasota, Florida junior high school teacher, wrote to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. “Who do you turn to when your teen age daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold along with objects directed and aimed at the teenage market in every City, Village and Record shop in this Nation?” The letter ends with a plea, complete with four punctuation marks: “How can we stamp out this menace????”
The FBI took up the investigation in 1964 under the ITOM statute, a federal law regulating the Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material. There are 119 pages in the FBI’s archival website, covering the case.
For two years, FBI investigators interviewed witnesses. They listened to the song at varying speeds, backward and forward, but the relentless search for bawdy material came up empty. In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.
Strangely, the feds never interviewed Kingsmen lead singer Jack Ely, who probably could have saved them a lot of time.
The song has been covered by numerous artists over the years, including Paul Revere & the Raiders, Otis Redding, Motorhead, Black Flag and Young MC. The best version ever, has got to be the Delta Tau Chi fraternity version from John Landis’ 1978 movie, Animal House.
“OK, let’s give it to ’em. Right now”.