November 15, 1963 Unintelligible at Any Speed

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.

MI0001688683.jpgIn 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.

louie-louie.jpgIt 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????”

louierfk1 (1).gifDad 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”.

Louie4.jpgThe 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”.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

16 thoughts on “November 15, 1963 Unintelligible at Any Speed”

  1. Great post Rick. One of the most important songs in rock and roll history. So many garage bands start off with this song. It’s something that is easy to play and you can sound like the record.
    The more people think it is subversive…the more it sells. Gotta love human nature.

    Rick, I had to re-follow you…I wasn’t seeing your posts anymore in my reader for some reason…now its straighten out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This one had me thinking of you, Max. One of those times when our subject areas, coincide.

      I wonder what’s up with that? I haven’t been doing these daily for a while, too much going on and not enough time, But I haven’t gone away altogether. Thanks for making the effort to re-follow. This ride is a lot more fun with others to come along.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It had to be something on my end. I would check on you when you were away some to make sure I didn’t miss a post…and I realized I wasn’t getting it everyday…it’s good now though.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! It’s incredible how hysteria can overwhelm the reality – I mean, the lyrics are about some guy sailing home to his girlfriend. That said, it’s one of my favourite songs! I particularly like the George Duke/Stanley Clarke version (1980). It’s a curious thing – I spent many years learning classical piano and music theory. However, ‘Louie Louie’ is something I particularly like playing. Far more rewarding than Beethoven, Bach, etc, all of which I usually mangle. In past years I always threatened to play ‘Louie Louie’ on any famous public instrument I could find – seriously. My wife twigged to it and usually forbad me to actually ask those in charge of access. She knew only too well that I’d insist I was well-trained on classical piano, get the go-ahead, and – well, out would come Mr Berry’s signature motif. My proposed instruments included the 200-year old commander’s piano at Port Arthur in Tasmania (now a museum/archaeological site) and the carillion in the Belfort clock tower in Brugges, which dates to the sixteenth century, has 47 bells today, and is tuned to non-tempered scale. It was available for performance when we were there and, well… to me, ‘Louie Louie’ called. I was dissuaded…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Outstanding and thoughtful comments, Matthew. Thank you for that. I was having a conversation just the other day, I don’t know how we got there, about whether or not classically trained musicians had any interest in popular music. Particularly the grungier stuff. I have no musical training whatsoever and even less talent for it, but I know what I like and it’s always fun to learn about the interests of others. Thank you for filling in one of life’s little blanks for me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! I like an enormous range of music – everything from classical to prog rock, metal, current synth-pop and a lot more. It is all meaningful to me, depending on mood. I understand that this isn’t shared by everybody… but I kind of feel it should be – hence my somewhat mischievous notion of punking the ‘solemnity’ attached by the guardians of historical classical instruments with (yeeech) rock’n roll… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Two years later these folks were burning Beatles albums in the public square. Reminds me of a State Science Institute study that said if CO2 traps heat linearly, temperatures could rise. Schoolmarms got hold of that and predicted the world would be a rotisserie by 6 years ago in a “prophets, not profits” movement. Go figure…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I’m not mistaken, I believe yesterday with some sort of anniversary for Al gores “inconvenient truth”. He seems to have figured we’d be on some kind of a rotisserie by now. Glad that didn’t work out so well.


  4. Wonderful post. Those were the days – can’t beat a bit of subversion. One of the attractions of the Kingsmen’s version of ‘Louie Louie’ is that it is such a raw, awful quality recording. And among the bands that have covered it was an excellent little combo that I used to be in – it took us hours to work out the lyrics, though!!

    Liked by 1 person

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