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'Louie Louie': The story behind the song everyone knows but no one understands

Left to right: Norm Sundholm, Lynn Easton, Dick Peterson, Mike Mitchell, and Barry Curtis of the touring version of the rock and roll band "The Kingsmen" perform onstage in 1964.
Michael Ochs
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Archives/Getty Images
Left to right: Norm Sundholm, Lynn Easton, Dick Peterson, Mike Mitchell, and Barry Curtis of the touring version of the rock and roll band "The Kingsmen" perform onstage in 1964.

"Louie Louie," recorded by the Kingsmen, began climbing the pop charts 60 years ago. It's a song almost everybody can recognize, but almost nobody understands the words to. And even fewer people know the story of the song's evolution – how it went from West Coast dance hit, to party anthem, with an FBI investigation and Supreme Court case along the way.

The first recording of the song dates back to 1957. Richard Berry, an L.A. musician, recorded a song about a sailor who has to ship out, and leave his girl behind. While the words – written in a fake-Jamaican patois – were an attempt to tap into the calypso music popular at the time (Harry Belafonte was topping the charts), the melodic riff came from a song called El Loco Cha Cha, recorded by Cuban-American band leader René Touzet.

According to music writer Peter Blecha, author of Stomp and Shout: R&B and the Origins of Northwest Rock and Roll, the song found popularity in the L.A. area first. But then Berry took it on tour up and down the West Coast, and its popularity spread.

The song's rhythm made it a favorite on jukeboxes and at teenage dances. Rather than featuring free-form dancing, says Blecha, dances at that time would often require specific steps to specific songs or beats – the mashed potato, the stroll, the watusi. The cha-cha was on the list as well, and "Louie Louie" had a great cha-cha beat.

"It became the required song that every Northwest teenage band had to play at every dance every week," says Blecha.

One of those teenage bands was the Kingsmen. Now there have beenother versionsrecorded by other bands. But this was the one that took the song from regional dance standard to a national phenomenon – even though it's not the best recording.

"The studio that these bands were going in to record had very little experience recording bands – rock bands were sort of new in the area," says Blecha. "It was a jingle studio. They made radio ads for, you know, car lots and for bakeries and for radio stations. So I don't think that they were used to setting up the microphones properly for a loud, pounding rock band." Band members have said the engineer hung a microphone high above them, causing Jack Ely, the singer, to have to shout to be heard. And his enunciation wasn't helped by the fact that he wore braces.

It turned out having words nobody could understand would prove surprisingly important. Dick Peterson joined the band in 1963, stepping in after the original drummer was drafted. And he says when kids couldn't understand the song, they came up with their own lyrics. Dirty lyrics.

"We were on the front page of every newspaper saying that we were corrupting the moral fiber of the youth of America," remembers Peterson. "And J. Edgar Hoover launched an investigation – they woke us up in the middle of the night pounding on the door: 'FBI, FBI!'"

In addition to the obscenity investigation, the song was banned by the Governor of Indiana, and investigated by the FCC, who the Kingsmen eventually testified in front of.

"The magistrate, I guess he's called, or judge, he said, 'let me hear it,'" says Peterson. "And he thought, 'Why are you fighting over this? It's a piece of junk.' And so he said, 'Listen, nobody can tell what it says. I'm going to deem it unintelligible at any speed, and lift the ban.'"

Peterson says the controversy is part of what kept it on the charts. "The kids thought we got away with murder. And from then on we were able to go on television shows – we went on Shindig! five times, Hullabaloo, American Bandstand," says Peterson. "We just went around the country playing concerts and playing to huge crowds."

"Louie Louie" has now been covered a ridiculous number of times.It's a marching band standard, and has been featured in countless advertisements and movies.

It's also been part of a royalty lawsuit Dick Peterson took all the way up to the Supreme Court.

That's a pretty big story for a pretty simple song. But music writer Peter Blecha says that simplicity – in addition to all the drama – is part of why it's been so enduring. He quotes the musician Paul Revere, who recorded another popular early version with his band Paul Revere and The Raiders.

"He said the reason for the popularity is because of its simpleness, its stupidness," quotes Blecha. "He goes, 'three chords and the most mundane beat possible.' He goes, 'any idiot could learn it, and they all did.'"

60 years later, they're still playing it. Because music isn't always about complexity, or even skill. Sometimes it's just about a song that makes you feel good. Even if you can't understand the words.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deena Prichep
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