The first part of our dive into the song, “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen (recorded next to the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, OR) was the infamous story of the FBI investigation into the lyrics of this rock & roll hit from 1963. Dig a little deeper, and there’s even more drama to uncover.
After the song lyric controversy died down, the popularity of “Louie Louie” was far from over. Unfortunately, in typical music industry fashion, the success of the Kingsmen’s hit record wasn’t exactly tangible for everyone.
Rock & roll, by its nature, tends to be derivative, and the genealogy of this megahit is epic. The immediate predecessor to the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” was the version recorded by Rockin’ Robin Roberts and the Fabulous Wailers in 1961. Yet the musical lineage continues, as Rockin’ Robin’s version was birthed from Richard Berry and the Pharoahs’ original 1957 rendition. But even Berry’s interpretation was inspired by the riff from “El Loco Cha Cha Cha” by Cuban musician, René Touzet in 1956, and Touzet’s song likely has roots pulled from yet another folk song. Whew!
Richard Berry was part of the early wave of Black R&B music, which laid the groundwork for rock & roll. He wrote “Louie Louie” and the original lyrics, which he sang clearly. Who could have guessed that his little ditty would become a phenomenon? His record sold 130,000 copies on the West Coast in 1957, but it never became a national hit. Motivated to marry his fiancé, Richard Berry sold his songwriting rights to “Louie Louie” to Flip records for $750 in 1959. “When you’re a poor Black kid out of south-central L.A., $750 seems like a fortune,” Berry explained in interviews, years after the fact. Over the following decades, Berry fell on hard times, living on welfare while he watched his song become a classic rock standard.
In the mid-1980s, a wine cooler brand wanted to use “Louie Louie” in a commercial. Particulars of the original contract required Berry’s permission for commercial use of the song. As the deal was being investigated, an attorney discovered that Berry was deprived of a huge chunk of publishing royalties. Not only did Berry receive two million dollars of his fair share, interest in the original “Louie Louie” singer resuscitated Richard Berry’s music career. He reunited with his original bandmates, The Pharaohs, and started performing again for enthusiastic crowds for the rest of his life.
As for the Kingsmen, early showbiz success can often stir up drama within bands.
Right before “Louie Louie” hit the charts and the Kingsmen became famous in 1963, drummer Lynn Easton, whose mother had ownership of the band’s name, declared that he was the singer now, and Ely would be demoted to drummer. Keyboardist Bob Nordby was kicked out because he was still in high school and too young to go on tour. This prompted singer Jack Ely to quit the band in a huff. As members split off and formed other bands, lawsuits ensued over who could perform under the name the Kingsmen and who had the right to sing (or lipsync) “Louie Louie.” Fans were confused, as they realized the Kingsmen’s original singer was missing, yet other bands were still playing the song.
Nevertheless, considering the wild success of “Louie Louie”, you may have thought that the white kids from the Kingsmen were meanwhile living the highlife off of Berry’s song. The truth is that the Kingsmen were cheated out of the deal, too. Even though they had signed a contract in 1968 to get 9% of the royalty profit, various record companies changed hands and the Kingsmen were never paid a cent for thirty years.
Jack Ely and the Kingsmen pursued their own recording royalties for decades, in a tiresome, contentious lawsuit. The process involved incurring massive legal fees, chasing down the whereabouts of the master recordings, defunct record labels and contested copyrights. Gusto Records refused to hand over the masters and was fined for contempt of court. The company had allegedly sloppy bookkeeping, so tracing profits back to any particular artist was impossible. The Kingsmen won their court case in 1998. But instead of recouping decades worth of lost royalties, the band members made a deal to reap profits from future use of the song.
“Louie Louie” has popped up everywhere, from the movie, Animal House, to television shows, even morphing into a marching band fight song at football games. It remains one of the most covered rock songs of all time, with an estimated 2,000 recorded versions and counting. To this day, this catchy earworm is so ubiquitous, “Louie Louie” is practically an American folk song. And of course, one more cultural cameo for the pop hit is the “Louie Louie” themed guest room at McMenamins Crystal Hotel, cattycornered from the site of the Kingsmen’s original recording session at the Northwestern Inc. Recording Studio in downtown Portland.