Rock and roll's 'dirtiest' song turns 30

September 27, 1993|By Ron Hayes | Ron Hayes,Cox News Service

The dirtiest, filthiest, nastiest record in the whole shocking history of rock and roll turns 30 this year.

Strange, but yesterday's pop music scandals have a way of being forgotten overnight.

2 Live Who?

But, ah, "Louie, Louie!"

The Kingsmen's 1963 hit is just as dirty as it ever was -- which it never was -- and that, no doubt, is the secret of its longevity.

For baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s, those 2 minutes and 42 seconds of inspired garage-band mush will forever spark a million memories. Is it going too far to suggest that the whole history of rock and roll is right there in that cheesy electric organ's five opening chords?

In a just world, the record would have been remaindered into well-deserved obscurity as soon as it appeared in the summer of 1963. Fortunately, this is not a just world, and "Louie, Louie" has gone from musical mediocrity to archetypal rock myth. More than 1,200 "Louies" exist, recorded by everyone from Julie London to Frank Zappa to the Rice University Marching Owl Band. But The Kingsmen, a one-hit quintet from Portland, Ore., recorded the version everyone thinks of when they think of "Louie, Louie," and apparently we think of it quite a lot.

According to BMI, the song-licensing company that monitors radio airplay, The Kingsmen's Louie is heard about 200,000 times a year in the United States. It's inspired 24-hour "Louie, Louie" marathons on radio, a street parade in Philadelphia, a 2 1/2 -year FBI investigation, and now, to celebrate its 30th birthday, a whole book by the respected rock scholar, Dave Marsh.

Why a 238-page book about a 2 1/2 -minute song?

"In 1987, I was doing my book about the 1,001 greatest rock and roll singles ever made, and I had this "Louie, Louie" problem," Mr. Marsh recalled recently. "It either had to be number one, or I didn't know where to put it."

Clearly, "Louie, Louie" was too disreputable to be No. 1, so Mr. Marsh made it No. 11, and in researching the song's unlikely history, he became intrigued enough to tell his agent, "There's actually a whole book in this song."

The book has arrived, and the story it tells is as rambling and ironic as its title: "Louie, Louie: The History and Mythology of the World's Most Famous Rock 'n' Roll Song; Including the Full Details of Its Torture and Persecution at the Hands of the Kingsmen, J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I., and a Cast of Millions; and Introducing, for the First Time Anywhere, the Actual Dirty Lyrics" (Hyperion Books, $19.95).

In fact, "Louie, Louie" was an old song before The Kingsmen ever stepped into Northwest Recorders on a morning in April 1963. The song was written by a 21-year-old Los Angeles studio musician named Richard Berry in 1956 and in its original incarnation "Louie, Louie" was a sea chanty. And a cha-cha.

Berry's version was a minor regional hit in Southern California, but by 1959 the struggling songwriter was happy to sell the publishing and songwriting rights for a flat $750.

In 1961, Seattle's Rockin' Robin Roberts and The Wailers had another regional hit, and then, in April 1963, The Kingsmen recorded the song that would make them rock and roll immortals and FBI suspects.

"Louie, Louie" was exactly what it sounds like -- a demo record, recorded in one take, in one hour, for which the band paid either $37, $38, $44 or $50, depending on whose memory you believe. The drummer, Lynn Easton, lost the beat at one point and never quite found it again. Lead singer Jack Ely's vocal is largely incoherent partly because the microphone was suspended too high above his head and partly because he wore braces. But then if Ely's singing had been easily understood, "Louie, Louie" wouldn't be a legend.

The song broke out in October 1963 after Arnie "Woo Woo" Ginsburg of WMEX radio in Boston featured it on his "Worst Record of the Week" segment and came to work the next day to find 50 calls from record stores. People were actually looking to buy the record.

In January 1964, "Louie, Louie" peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Top 10 chart. By then, "Louie, Louie" was already the dirtiest song ever recorded.

In 1985, a Freedom of Information request unveiled the FBI's extensive file on "Louie, Louie," in which numerous people were interviewed, but not Jack Ely, the singer.

Ely could have told them the truth, that the lyrics tell the story of a homesick sailor who misses his girl back home in Jamaica and tells his sad tale to a bartender named Louie before shipping out again.

In his book Mr. Marsh was prevented by the copyright holder from reprinting the actual lyrics, so he offers instead the various filthy versions gathered by the FBI 30 years ago. And it's a funny thing. Listen to the record with the dirty lyrics in hand and, hey, they sound dirty.

"I have no evidence that the Kingsmen ever actually sang the dirty words," Mr. Marsh concedes.

And that's the joke. The most famous dirty song in rock and roll isn't dirty at all.

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