"Louie Louie" through the ages
April 1957: Flip Records in Los Angeles issues Richard Berry and the Pharaohs' R&B single "Louie Louie. " The prior summer, Berry had...
April 1957: Flip Records in Los Angeles issues Richard Berry and the Pharaohs' R&B single "Louie Louie." The prior summer, Berry had been inspired by Cuban musician/bandleader Rene Touzet's tune "El Loco Cha Cha" and its crazy rhythmic pulse. Berry pens his own tune, "Louie Louie," which relates the saga of a lovelorn sailor pouring his heart out to a patient bartender, Louie. Flip execs are so underwhelmed that they assign the song B-side status, favoring instead an R&B version of "You Are My Sunshine" for the A-side.
Summer 1957: A few savvy radio DJs flip the disc over and spin "Louie Louie," stirring up enough retail action that Berry joins a West Coast dance/concert tour headlined by R&B hit-makers Little Junior Parker and Bobby "Blue" Bland.
September 21, 1957: Berry brings "Louie Louie" to Seattle in a concert at the Eagles Auditorium.
Summer 1960: Tacoma's top rock 'n' roll band, the Wailers, records a version with hopes of releasing it as the debut for its own company, Etiquette Records. But about six months are wasted bickering over who gets top billing on the 45 label.
March 1961: Finally released, the Wailers' version becomes an instant #1 regional hit.
April 1963: On or about the 13th, the Kingsmen enter Portland's Northwestern Recorders studio and cut their version, which is released by Seattle's Jerden Records. About a week later, Paul Revere and the Raiders enter the same studio and record the same song, which is released by Portland's Sande Records. The latter sells better and is picked up for distribution by Columbia Records.
Summer 1963: Thinking the Raiders had whipped them, the Kingsmen argue and split up.
October 1963: The Kingsmen score when Boston's WMEX radio presents their 45 as "The Worst Record of the Week." Sales skyrocket, and Jerden strikes a deal with the powerful New York-based Wand label, resulting in a reported 21,000 units sold in one week. Back in Portland, the band resurfaces (albeit without singer Jack Ely), and on Dec. 7 the tune charts at the nation's No. 4 slot.
Winter 1963-64: Between December and January, rumors swirl that the Kingsmen's 45 contains muffled dirty lyrics. Parents complain to school principals, local mayors, congressmen, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Postal Service, the Federal Trade Commission and even FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover.
January 1964: "Louie Louie" hits No. 2 on the Billboard charts. The Indianapolis Star reports that Indiana Gov. Matthew Welsh listens to the record — which he calls so pornographic that his "ears tingled" — and he calls for a statewide ban on further airplay. The core of the charge is that one set of words is heard when the record is played at normal speed, while another version emerges when played more slowly. Several federal agencies launch investigations.
February 1964: An FCC official admits, "We found the record to be unintelligible at any speed ... "
1964-65: The Louie contagion spreads with Tacoma's garage kings, the Sonics, cutting the most ferocious punk version ever. Other Northwest bands do knock-offs, like Jack E. Lee & the Squires' "Love That Louie," the Raymarks' "Louise," H.B. & the Checkmates' "Louise Louise" and the Chambermen's "Louie Go Home."
Fall 1965: The FBI investigation finally concludes with zero charges filed. Meanwhile, the Kingsmen have sold perhaps 3 to 4 million copies.
1978-1979: In a famous drunken frat-house toga party scene in the hit flick "Animal House," actor John Belushi reacquaints the public with the joys of "Louie Louie."
1983: California college radio station KFJC airs 800 consecutive versions of "Louie Louie" on a 63-hour-long Maximum "Louie Louie" marathon show. Rhino Records releases a "Best of Louie Louie" compilation album that features 10 versions.
1985: On April 1, Philadelphia's radio station WMMR sponsors its first annual "Louie Louie" Parade, which attracts 7,000 people. Meanwhile, the Washington state Senate proclaims April 12 "Louie Louie Day."
1988: Rhino Records releases Volume 2 of its "Best of Louie Louie" compilation album, which again features 10 versions.
1992: After years of legal struggles, Richard Berry regains his composer's rights to "Louie Louie" — rights that he'd sold off back in 1957 because he needed $750 to get married. Before his death on Jan. 23, 1997, Berry reportedly earned around $2 million in royalties.
1994: Jerden Records issues "The 'Louie Louie' Collection," featuring 11 versions (including the UW Husky Marching Band).
November 1998: The U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear a challenge to an earlier court ruling that awarded royalty rights to the Kingsmen for their recording of "Louie Louie." In a five-year lawsuit that cost $1.3 million in legal fees, the band proved that it'd been unfairly denied proper payments since 1963 for a record that had sold an estimated 12 million copies.
June 2000: EMP's grand-opening events feature an exhibit about the song and a concert with "Louie"-era bands, including the Wailers, the Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Aug. 24, 2003: 754 guitarists play "Louie Louie" simultaneously at Tacoma's Cheney Stadium to try to set a Guinness world record, but the project falls a bit short.
December 2003: I manage an eBay auction of the Kingsmen's 1960s gold record, resulting in global newspaper headlines — and a winning bid of more than 100 times the original $50 recording session fee.
2006: The mystery of the date and site of Berry's first Seattle gig is finally solved, when I uncover an original dance poster for the 1957 Eagles Auditorium show.
Peter C. Blecha, Special to The Seattle Times
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