Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Rock'n'roll band formed in Portland OR '60 whose one big hit became a classic. Original lineup incl. Joe Ely, lead singer; Bob Norby, bass; Lynn Easton, drums; probably Mike Mitchell, lead guitar, Don Gallucci, organ; Norman Sundholm, guitar and bass: details are unsure because confusion ensued after recording of 'Louie Louie' '63. The song was written '55 by Richard Berry, who released it as the B side to a version of 'You Are My Sunshine' early '57; Louie was a bartender, a customer saying that he intended going to Jamaica to find his true love. It was covered by Rockin' Robin Roberts and the Wailers for a regional hit in the Northwest '61 (Roberts had discovered Berry's record in a bargain bin); the Kingsmen recorded it in two hours for $50 as a demo for an audition (they didn't get the job). Ely taught the song to the rest of the band, inadvertently changing the structure and making it more intense; the studio was so primitive that he had to scream the lyrics at a microphone over his head and the result was a basic three-chord rock'n'roll record, a beat with an emotional vocal ejaculation. The words were thought to be obscene, but the Federal Communications Commission said 'We found the record to be unintelligible at any speed we played it.' Another local band, Paul Revere and the Raiders, recorded it a few days later; the preferred local version remained the Wailers' but the Kingsmen's began to climb the national charts. At a time when Elvis Presley had sold out and the Beatles hadn't happened yet, rock'n'roll was in danger of being prettified; mysterious and sexy, 'Louie Louie' was a good party record, and reached no. 2 on Wand (no. 26 UK '64 on Pye). Easton and his mother had registered the name of the group, and he wanted to front it; Ely and Norby quit, Dick Peterson joined on drums and Easton became the lead singer, with the pressing difficulty that he couldn't sing 'Louie Louie'. Attendance at gigs dropped off, Easton lip-synced the record wherever he could, Ely had formed his own Kingsmen and they all went to court: Ely was prevented from using the name, Easton from lip-syncing; the band shared vocal chores and Peterson took over 'Louie'. Their other top 40 hits were 'Money', fluke 'Jolly Green Giant' (made in five minutes) '64-- 5. They disbanded '69.

John Belushi insisted on using 'Louie Louie' in the soundtrack of Animal House '78, allegedly because he lost his virginity while it was playing; Peterson re-formed with Mitchell and Barry Curtis (bassist/guitarist who played on 'Green Giant') with permission to use the name; they did a video of the song for MTV at the original Animal House location in Eugene OR ('We had a big toga party and supplied all the beer the kids could drink,' said Peterson), gigged weekends at oldies shows. In '84 the state of Washington talked about making 'Louie' the state song; California Cooler wine used it in a national advertising campaign. In '86 the band incl. Curtis, Peterson, Mitchell, Marc Willett and Kim Nicklaus. The song refuses to lie down; it is said that only Lennon & McCartney's 'Yesterday' has been covered more times; there were albums compiling different versions. Richard Berry (b 11 April '35, Extension LA; d 23 Jan. '97, Los Angeles), had sold all his copyrights for $650, but regained 75 per cent of the songwriting and 50 per cent of the publishing on 'Louie Louie' '86. He could sing parts from tenor to bass, was a member of the Flairs and the Robins (see entry for the Coasters; Berry did the narration on 'Riot In Cell Block No. 9'); recorded solo and with female backing group the Dreamers: his compilation Get Out Of The Car was on Ace and Virgin. (Quotations from Daniel Brogan in the Chicago Tribune.)