Music critics were never kind to one of the biggest hits of all time. One writer proclaimed it “a ridiculous piece of junk.” Another grumbled that “it had all the charm of a clanging hubcap.” Strangely enough, the Kingsmen, the band responsible for “Louie, Louie,” felt the same way.
The three-verse ditty had originally been a 1956 release by Los Angeles R & B singer/songwriter Richard Berry, whose Flip Records single told of a lonely sailor lamenting to a bartender named Louie. Berry’s 45 never cracked the national charts, but the tune lingered on—and on and on—into the early 1960s, where it became a staple of three-chord garage bands throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The Kingsmen were a Portland, Oregon, rock quintet fronted by Jack Ely. Ken Chase, the Kingsmen’s manager, provided work for the outfit at a teen dance club he owned. On a whim one night, the group played a nonstop 90-minute set of nothing but “Louie, Louie.” The dancers went wild and even demanded more. Chase recognized the song’s potential for the Kingsmen and scheduled time at Northwest Recorders, the only recording studio in Portland.
When a soundcheck was ordered to test the microphone levels, Chase raised the vocalist’s boom microphone to 15 feet off the floor, claiming this would offer a better “live” feel when the Kingsmen recorded.
Things quickly went south when the tape rolled. Ely had to lean back to sing—shout, really—up to the microphone far above him, resulting in a slurring of Berry’s simplistic lyrics. Drummer Lynn Easton lost the beat partway through. And, following the instrumental break, Ely came in too soon on the song’s final verse and had to restart it. After two excruciating minutes, “Louie, Louie” mercifully ground to a halt.
Then came Chase’s jaw-dropping announcement. “That’s it! That’s the take I want!” he enthused as he bolted from the control room, explaining that the soundcheck had exactly the raw edge that he sought.
The Kingsmen, understandably, were incredulous: This piece of garbage would become their debut single? Sadly, the answer was yes.
Jerden Records in Seattle released the soundcheck version, which earned some airplay on Pacific Northwest radio before it fell off the playlists. Somehow, the forgotten 45 made its way across the country, and popular Boston rock DJ Arnie Ginsberg ended up spinning “Louie, Louie” on a Friday night feature he called “The Worst Record of the Week.”
Surprisingly, several record stores phoned to ask about ordering the disc, and soon New York’s Wand Records leased the Jerden master, and by January 1964, “Louie, Louie” sat at Number Two on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
When some listeners erroneously claimed that “Louie, Louie” contained filthy lyrics, two FBI agents visited Richard Berry, who later explained with a chuckle, “They came to the conclusion that the singer’s words were indecipherable.”
“I was never contacted about the lyrics,” Ely grumbled in a postscript. “Nobody ever wanted to talk to the guy who actually sang the supposedly dirty words.” ISI