In 1955, singer-songwriter Richard Berry wrote a tune about a Jamaican sailor returning home to see his lady love. It’s a ballad, a Caribbean-flavored conversation in the first person singular, with a bartender. The bartender’s name is Louie.
The song was covered in Latin and and R&B styles in the 1950s, never becoming 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 rented a recording studio for $50, and covered the song. 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 was transformed to a raucous 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3 beat.
The Kingsmen recorded the song in a single take. The guitar was chaotic, the lyrics difficult to make out. The single was released by a small label in May and re-released by Wand Records in October.
Rock music is so mainstream now, it’s hard to remember the style was once considered subversive. Decadent. The impenetrable lyrics led to all kinds of speculation, driving sales through the 15th of November, all the way to the Billboard Top 100 chart.
It all went downhill from there. “Louie Louie, me gotta go,” became in the fevered imagination, “Louie Louie, grab her way down low.” Invented lyrics ranging from mildly raunchy to downright pornographic were written out on slips of paper and exchanged between teenagers, spurring interest in the song and driving record sales, through the roof.
Music critic Dave Marsh later wrote: “This preposterous fable bore no scrutiny even at the time, but kids used to pretend it did, in order to panic parents, teachers and other authority figures. …So ‘Louie Louie’ leaped up the chart on the basis of a myth about its lyrics so contagious that it swept cross country quicker than bad weather.”
Concerned parents contacted government authorities to see what could be done. One father, a Sarasota, Florida junior high teacher whose name is redacted in FBI files, 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 asserts “The lyrics are so filthy I cannot enclose them in this letter” and concludes with a plea, complete with four punctuation marks: “How can we stamp out this menace????”
Dad might have taken a breath. The pop culture scene was not so steeped in filth, as he imagined. The top television program of the time was the Beverly Hillbillies. The top movie the Disney animated production, “The Sword and the Stone”.
The FBI took up an investigation under the ITOM statute in 1964, a federal law regulating the Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material. Investigators interviewed witnesses. They listened to the song at varying speeds, backward and forward. The relentless search for lascivious material lasted two years and in the end, came up empty.
The FBI’s archival website contains 119 pages, covering the investigation. In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.
Inexplicably, G-men never interviewed Kingsmen lead singer Jack Ely. He probably could have saved them a lot of time. The lyrics never did measure up to the fevered imagination, of a Sarasota schoolteacher.
Louie Louie, with lyrics
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 ever though, 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”.