A Song So Great
They Named It Twice
Berry was born in Louisiana, but moved to L.A. with his family when he was a baby. From all reports he had a difficult childhood; having injured his hip, he was forced to use crutches until he was six. However, he picked up his love of music at a camp for handicapped kids, where he learned how to play the ukulele.
He learned his vocal chops practicing in the hallways of Jefferson High School. Soon he was "singing and playing in local doo-wop groups, recording with a number of them including The Penguins, The Cadets and the Chimes, the Crowns, the Five Hearts, the Hunters, the Rams, the Whips, and the Dreamers, an otherwise all-female quartet from Fremont High. He then joined The Flairs (who also recorded as the Debonaires and the Flamingoes) in 1953," as the Wiki tells us.
After leaving The Flairs Berry hooked up with Rick Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers, described as a Latin & R&B band. That's when he got the notion to write Louis Louis. As the Wiki explains:
Richard Berry was inspired to write the song in 1955 after listening to and performing the song "El Loco Cha Cha" with Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers. The tune was written originally as "Amarren Al Loco" ("Tie up the crazy guy") by Cuban bandleader Rosendo Ruiz Jr. – also known as Rosendo Ruiz Quevedo – but became best known in the "El Loco Cha Cha" arrangement by René Touzet which included a rhythmic ten-note "1-2-3 1–2 1-2-3 1–2" riff.Crank it up and D A N C E ! ! !
Touzet performed the tune regularly in Los Angeles clubs in the 1950s. In Berry's mind, the words "Louie Louie" superimposed themselves over the bass riff. Lyrically, the first person perspective of the song was influenced by "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)", which is sung from the perspective of a customer talking to a bartender (Berry's bartender's name is Louie). Berry cited Chuck Berry's "Havana Moon" and his exposure to Latin American music for the song's speech pattern and references to Jamaica.
Louie Louie might have remained in obscurity as the B-side to "You Are My Sunshine" by Richard Berry and the Pharaohs, on Flip Records, had it not been discovered by Tacoma singer "Rockin' Robin Roberts" who recorded his cover version in 1960, using his band The Wailers [no relation], aka the Fabulous Wailers. It includes the ad lib "Let's give it to 'em, RIGHT NOW!!" and, while it was a local hit, it sank without a trace when re-released for the national market.
In 1963 a Portland, Oregon band named The Kingsmen decided to make it their second single, after "Peter Gunn Rock." The tune was arranged by bandmember Jack Ely. Again, Wiki knows all:
The Kingsmen's lead singer Jack Ely based his version on the recording by Rockin' Robin Roberts with the Fabulous Wailers, unintentionally introducing a change in the rhythm as he did. "I showed the others how to play it with a 1–2–3, 1–2, 1–2–3 beat instead of the 1–2–3–4, 1–2, 1–2–3–4 beat that is on the (Wailers) record", recalled Ely. The night before their recording session, the band played a 90-minute version of the song during a gig at a local teen club.
[...]The Kingsmen transformed Berry's easy-going ballad into a raucous romp, complete with a twangy guitar, occasional background chatter, and nearly unintelligible lyrics by Ely. A guitar break is triggered by the shout, "Okay, let's give it to 'em right now!", which first appeared in the Wailers version, as did the entire guitar break (although, in the Wailers version, a few notes differ, and the entire band played the break). Critic Dave Marsh suggests it is this moment that gives the recording greatness: "[Ely] went for it so avidly you'd have thought he'd spotted the jugular of a lifelong enemy, so crudely that, at that instant, Ely sounds like Donald Duck on helium. And it's that faintly ridiculous air that makes the Kingsmen's record the classic that it is, especially since it's followed by a guitar solo that's just as wacky."
The Kingsmen's cover of Louie Louie probably would have been a hit in any case, but the persistent, and widely believed, rumours that the lyrics were dirty probably didn't hurt. Even the FBI was fooled, launching an expensive investigation into The Kingmen, the record company, and the radio stations that played it. I tell that story in A Song So Great They Named It Twice, which was based on my reading of Dave Marsh's wonderful book with the unwieldy 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 FBI.
Incidentally, despite there being THOUSANDS of cover versions of his tune, Berry didn't make a penny off of them. He sold the rights to Louie Louie in 1959 for $750 to pay for his wedding. Luckily, he eventually did start to realize a fairly good chuck of change later:
In the mid eighties Berry was living on welfare at his mother's house in South Central L.A.. Drinks company California Cooler wanted to use "Louie Louie" in a commercial, but discovered they needed Berry's signature to use it. They asked the Artists' Rights society to locate him, and a lawyer visited Berry. The lawyer mentioned the possibility of Berry taking action to gain the rights to his song. The publishers settled out of court, making Berry a millionaire.
Garage Bands around the world celebrate today as International Louie Louis Day.
Okay, let's give it to 'em 12
times right now! Me gotta go!
times right now! Me gotta go!