" is an American rock 'n' roll
song written by Richard Berry
in 1955. It has become a standard in pop
and rock, with hundreds of versions recorded by different artists. The song is written in the style of a Jamaican
ballad; and tells, in simple verse-chorus form
, the first-person story of a Jamaican sailor returning to the island to see his lady love. The singer brags of his "fine little girl" to the Louie of the title, presumably a bartender.
A version by The Kingsmen recorded in 1963 is the best-known recording. The Kingsmen's version was also the subject of an FBI investigation about the supposed but non-existent obscenity of the lyrics, an investigation that ended without prosecution.
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 arrangement by René Touzet
which included a rhythmic ten-note "1-2-3 1-2 1-2-3 1-2" riff
. 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 cited Chuck Berry
's "Havana Moon
" and his exposure to Latin American music
for the song's speech pattern and references to Jamaica
Richard Berry released his version in April 1957 with his backing band, the Pharaohs (Originally the b-side of "You Are My Sunshine", Flip Records 321), and scored a regional hit on the west coast, particularly in San Francisco. When the group toured the Pacific Northwest, several local R&B bands began to adopt the song and established its popularity. However, the single never charted on Billboard's national rhythm and blues or pop charts. Berry's label reported that the single had sold 40,000 copies. After a series of unsuccessful followups, Berry sold his portion of publishing and songwriting rights for $750 to the head of Flip Records in 1959.
While the title of the song is often rendered with a comma ("Louie, Louie"), in 1988 Berry told Esquire magazine that the correct title of the song was "Louie Louie", with no comma.
Version by The Kingsmen
In the U.S. music
industry of the 1950s and 1960s, mainstream white artists would often re-record songs by black artists. On April 6 1963
, a rock and roll group from Portland, Oregon
, called The Kingsmen
chose "Louie Louie" as their second recording, their first being "Peter Gunn Rock" recorded earlier.
The Kingsmen recorded the song at Northwestern, Inc., Motion Pictures and Recording in Portland, Oregon. The group paid a small sum of $36 for a one-hour Saturday morning session. The session was produced by Ken Chase aka Mike Korgan. Chase was a local radio personality on the AM rock station 91 KISN and also owned the teen nightclub that hosted the Kingsmen as their house band. The engineer for the session was the studio owner, Robert Lindahl. The Kingsmen's lead singer Jack Ely based his version on a 1961 recording of Berry's tune by another band from the Pacific Northwest, Rockin' Robin Roberts and the Fabulous Wailers (no relation to The Wailers headed by Bob Marley years later), unintentionally introducing a slight 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-second version of the song during a gig at a local teen club.
The Kingsmen's studio version was recorded in one take. They also recorded the "B" side of the release, an original instrumental by the group called "Haunted Castle".
The most notorious error on the Kingsmen's version comes after the guitar break. To some ears, singer Ely begins singing the verse in the correct place, but thinks he's come in too soon, and pauses for another cycle of the riff. To others, he comes in too soon and corrects himself but the band doesn't realize that he's done so. Either way, drummer Lynn Easton covers the pause with a drum fill. But then, before the verse has ended, the rest of the band goes into the chorus at the point where they expect it to be. They recover quickly, but the confusion would seem to indicate that the rest of the band couldn't hear the vocals while they were recording. This error is now so embedded in the consciousness of some groups that they actually duplicate it when performing the song. There is also a persistent and oft-repeated story that the microphone for Ely was mounted too high for him to sing without tilting his head back excessively, resulting in his somewhat pinched and strangled sound through most of his vocal. This seems unlikely, however, in view of the fact that it was recorded by professional personnel in a dedicated recording studio.
Regardless of accuracy or technique, the Kingsmen transformed Berry's relatively easy-going ballad into a raucous romp, complete with a twangy guitar, occasional background chatter, and almost completely unintelligible lyrics by Ely. A chaotic guitar break is triggered by the shout, "Okay, let's give it to 'em right now!", which first appeared in the Wailers' version. 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".
Released in May 1963, the single entered the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for December 7, and peaked at number two the following week; it would remain in the top 10 through December and January before dropping off in early February. In total, the Kingsmen's version spent sixteen weeks on the Hot 100. (Singles by The Singing Nun, then Bobby Vinton, monopolized the top slot for eight weeks.) "Louie Louie" did reach #1 on the Cashbox chart. The version quickly became a standard at teen parties in the U.S. during the 1960s, even reappearing on the charts in 1966.
Another factor in the success of the record may have been the rumor that the lyrics were intentionally slurred by the Kingsmen. Allegedly, this was to cover the fact that it was laced with profanity, graphically depicting sex between the sailor and his lady. Crumpled pieces of paper professing to be "the real lyrics" to "Louie Louie" circulated among teens. The song was banned on many radio stations and in many places in the United States, including Indiana, where it was personally prohibited by the Governor, Matthew Welsh.
These actions were taken despite the small matter that practically no one could distinguish the actual lyrics. Denials of chicanery by Kingsmen and Ely did not stop the controversy. The FBI became involved in the controversy but concluded a 31-month investigation with a report that they were "unable to interpret any of the wording in the record." Ely later stated that if you listen closely, you can hear the drummer say "fuck" when he accidentally clicks his drumsticks together. This can be heard at 0:54 on the record.
After a protracted lawsuit that lasted five years and cost $1.3 million dollars, The Kingsmen won the rights to their song "Louie Louie". The Supreme Court in November 1998, declined to hear an appeal by the record company of an earlier legal ruling giving the rights to the band.
Paul Revere & The Raiders also recorded a version of "Louie Louie" in April 1963 in the same Portland studio as The Kingsmen. This recording was paid for and produced by 91 KISN Radio Personality Roger Hart, who soon became Personal Manager for Paul Revere & The Raiders. Initially, their single was more successful locally, put out on Hart's SANDE label, then when signed to Columbia Records it was reissued in June 1963 nationally, where it went #1 in the West and Hawaii. The quick success of "Louie Louie" suddenly halted in the West. A few years later, Paul Revere & the Raiders learned why: Columbia Records A&R man Mitch Miller, who did not like Rock n' Roll, pulled the plug on Paul Revere & The Raiders' hit version.
Meanwhile, local sales of the Kingsmen record were so low (reportedly 600) that the group considered disbanding. Things changed when Boston's biggest DJ, Arnie Ginsburg, was given the record by a pitchman. Amused by its slapdash sound, he played it on his program as "The Worst Record of the Week." Despite the slam, listener response was swift and positive.
By the end of October, the Kingsmen's version was listed in Billboard as a regional breakout and a "bubbling under" entry for the national chart. Meanwhile, the Raiders' version, with far stronger promotion, was becoming a hit in California and was also listed as "bubbling under" one week after the Kingsmen's debut on the chart. For a few weeks, the two singles appeared destined to battle each other, but demand for the Kingsmen single acquired momentum and, by the end of 1963, Columbia had stopped promoting the Raiders' "Louie Louie", per Columbia Records Mitch Miller. But Paul Revere's band held the bragging rights in Portland, where they outsold the Kingsmen by a reported 10 to 1.
Robert Lindahl, then-president and chief engineer of NWI, and the sound engineer on the Kingsmen's and Paul Revere & the Raiders' noted that the Raiders' version is not known for "garbled lyrics" or an amateurish recording technique. But despite these attributes, the single never seized the public's attention the way the less-polished Kingsmen version had.
By the time that the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" had achieved national popularity, the band had split. Two rival editions — one featuring lead singer Ely, the other with Lynn Easton, who held the rights to the band's name — were competing for live audiences across the country.
In February, 1964, an outraged parent wrote Robert Kennedy, then the attorney general of the United States alleging that the lyrics of "Louie, Louie" were obscene. The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated the complaint. In June, 1965, the FBI laboratory obtained a copy of the recording and concluded that it could not interpret any of the words on the recording, and therefore could not conclude that the recording was obscene. In September, 1965, an FBI agent interviewed one member of the Kingsmen. He denied that there was any obscenity in the song.
It is unknown exactly how many versions of "Louie Louie" have been recorded, but it is believed to be over 1,500, according to LouieLouie.net.
The Kingsmen version has remained the most popular version of the song, retaining its association with wild partying. It enjoyed a comeback in 1978-79 and was associated with college fraternity parties when it was sung, complete with the supposedly obscene lyrics, by Bluto (John Belushi) and his fellow Delta House brothers in the movie National Lampoon's Animal House.
Following is a decade by decade survey of the song's popularity and influence across a broad spectrum of popular music. The song's continuing popularity helped Berry (who had retained his BMI rights) receive belated compensation for unpaid royalties.
After the Kingsmen and Raiders' versions, several other bands recorded the song:
- The Beach Boys recorded a rendition of "Louie Louie" for their 1963 album Shut Down Vol. 2.
- Ray Davies has stated that that he wrote The Kinks' first hit, "You Really Got Me" (1964) while trying to work out the chords of "Louie Louie". The band recorded Louie Louie on 18 October, 1964 and it was released in November on the "Kinksize Session" EP, but still the chords were not quite right.
- The Who were directed in their early recording career by the riff / rhythm of "Louie Louie". This was due to the song's influence on The Kinks, who, like the Who at the time, were produced by Shel Talmy, with the Kinks on the Decca label and the Who on Brunswick. Talmy wanted the successful sounds of The Kinks' 1964 hits "You Really Got Me", "All Day and All of the Night" and "Till the End of the Day" to be copied by The Who. As a result, Pete Townshend penned "I Can't Explain", released in March 1965. During a pre-song interview with host Brian Matthews on Saturday Club in May 1965, Pete explained that "I Can't Explain" was released to "introduce The Who to the charts" and that they were now trying to get away from all that and wanted to create the sort of sound they achieved on stage at present, hence their new single which they were about to sing live on Saturday Club now - the feedback-driven, Mod-inspired "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere". (In 1979 "Louie Louie" would be featured on the soundtrack album to Quadrophenia.)
- The American folk group The Sandpipers did a cover of the song in 1966 with a slower tempo and in Spanish.
- Prototype English punk/garage band The Troggs recorded a version of "Louie Louie" in 1966. Their cover version hit-single "Wild Thing" also uses a very similar riff to "Louie Louie".
- It underwent a psychedelic treatmeant courtesy of Friar Tuck on his 1967 album Friar Tuck And His Psychedelic Guitar
- "Louie Louie" repeatedly figured in the musical lexicon of Frank Zappa in the 1960s. An early live version of his original composition "Plastic People" (from his You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore series of live albums) was set to the melody of "Louie, Louie" (The official version was released on the album Absolutely Free in 1967). Also from the Absolutely Free album is the song "Son of Suzy Creamcheese", a song that has a melody that sounds like a sped-up version of "Louie Louie". Zappa reportedly fired guitarist Alice Stuart from The Mothers of Invention because she couldn't play "Louie Louie. At a Zappa concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Mothers Of Invention keyboardist Don Preston climbed up to the legendary venue's pipe organ, usually used for classical works, and played the signature riff (this can be heard on the 1969 Zappa album Uncle Meat). Quick interpolations of "Louie, Louie" also frequently turn up in other Zappa works.
- "The Sonics" also recorded a very rough, fuzz tone drenched version in the '60's.
By the 1970s the song was inspiring other songs and numerous other versions.
- Toots and the Maytals recorded a version for their albumFunky Kingston (1973). It has been suggested that use of the Kingsmen's beat from this song may have thus helped lead to the invention of reggae music.
- The 1973 hit "Brother Louie" by the UK band Hot Chocolate was strongly inspired by "Louie Louie" and includes a minor-key reprise of the chorus. The song, about an interracial romance, became a No. 1 U.S. hit that same year in a cover version by the New York band Stories.
"Louie Louie" was Motörhead's first single for Bronze Records in 1978. It was a relatively faithful cover of the song, with "Fast" Eddie Clarke's guitar emulating the Hohner Pianet electric piano riff.
- A version of "Louie Louie" performed by The Clash appears on a vinyl bootleg of the band called "Louie is a Punkrocker" (1977).
released its own version of "Louie Louie" in 1981 on Posh Boy Records
, then reissued the single on its own SST
label and as part of the anthology The First Four Years
. It features Dez Cadena
on vocals for the lead track, with Cadena improvising his own lyrics for the song; an alternate version heard on the 1982 outtakes compilation Everything Went Black
, recorded at a different session, features a different set of lyrics. A live recording of Black Flag's version from the 1986 live album Who's Got the 10½?
features Henry Rollins
following in the band's tradition of improvising new lyrics for the song.
Aside from the Animal House appearance the song appeared in many other films, typically in raucous and humours contexts. An instrumental version is heard during the last scene and closing credits of The Naked Gun (1988). (In the film, the University of Southern California Marching Band is seen trampling Ricardo Montalban's character.)
Animal House may have inspired various other real life pranks and tributes:
- In 1983 DJ Stretch Riedle of radio station KFJC in Los Altos Hills, California, played an hour's worth of "Louie Louie". Across the bay in Berkeley, California, an "Amazing Mystery DJ" at radio station KALX heard about this little show, and was inspired to play TWO HOURS of "Louie Louie". Stretch upped the ante with a 4-hour show featuring nothing but "Louie Louie". In the spirit of friendly competition and ultimate Louis-ness, the folks at KALX assembled a 24 hour "Louie Louie" marathon, which included many new original versions, and received plenty of local coverage. Not to be outdone, Riedle went completely over the top. Teamed with DJ Phil Dirt and station advisor Doc Pelzel, he coordinated the largest "Louie Louie" marathon ever undertaken in the history of mankind. For many months in advance, the staff of KFJC searched high and low for every known version of the song, encouraging musicians to record new versions of the song, and promoted this event like the massive media event it would become. They tracked down Richard Berry, the song's author, and brought him up from Los Angeles by train with his daughter Kristy to be honored guests for the event. The Wall Street Journal gave the story front page coverage, the Entertainment Tonight television show provided significant mention, every local newspaper provided significant articles, and all the regional TV news programs featured this story as a prominent news item. Beginning Friday night, August 19, 1983, a 63-hour "Louie Louie" marathon called Maximum Louie Louie aired. Plans to make a documentary film of the event are ongoing, but currently hampered by lack of funding.
- In 1985, Ross Shafer, host and a writer-performer of the late-night comedy series Almost Live! on the Seattle TV station KING, spearheaded an effort to have "Louie Louie" replace "Washington, My Home" by Helen Davis as Washington's official state song. Picking up on this initially prankish effort, Whatcom County Councilman Craig Cole introduced Resolution No. 85-12 in the state legislature, citing the need for a "contemporary theme song that can be used to engender a sense of pride and community, and in the enhancement of tourism and economic development". His resolution also called for the creation of a new "Louie Louie County". While the House did not pass it, the Senate's Resolution 1985-37 declared April 12, 1985, "Louie Louie Day". A crowd of 4,000, estimated by press reports, convened on the state capitol that day for speeches, singalongs, and performances by the Wailers, the Kingsmen, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Two days later, a Seattle event commemorated the occasion with the premiere performance of a new, Washington-centric version of the song written by composer Berry.
- In 1987, at Nirvana's first concert, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic jammed on Louie Louie.
The Fat Boys recorded a version of "Louie Louie" in 1988 on their album Coming Back Hard Again; their version features new lyrics written by the group about the history of the song and its original controversy.
In the 1980s Rhino Records released The Best of Louie Louie in support of KFJC's Maximum Louis Louis event. The album features Richard Berry's original recording, the Kingsmen's influential version, Black Flag's version, and several other versions, some bizarre. These included a performance by the Rice University Marching Owl Band, and the a cappella "Hallalouie Chorus", in which the song's title was sung to the melody of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus". Other volumes in this Best of series followed.
sang a hard rock
version of "Louie Louie" in 1991. In the music video directed by Dominic Orlando
, Louie is portrayed as Louis the XIV. And the Kingsmen's version appears on the closing credits of The Simpsons
' episode "Homer Goes to College
" (1993). But the song was mostly obvious in movies:
- Young MC 's take on the song was included in the 1990 film Coupe de Ville. The movie includes a lengthy scene where the three brother characters argue over the lyrics while the Kingsmen's version plays. The movie then returns to the topic in the final narration and Young MC 's version then plays as the credits roll.
- In Dave (1993), Kevin Kline's Dave Kovacs (impersonating the President of the United States) sings the first few lyrics of the song at a factory while controlling oversized robotic arms.
- A version of "Louie Louie" performed by Robert Plant is on the soundtrack of the 1993 film, Wayne's World 2 (1993).
- The 1995 film Mr. Holland's Opus features a version of the song, played by a marching band led by Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss).
- In the Chevy Chase film Man of the House (also 1995), Indian Scout members and their chaperones sing the song; when some of the younger children claim they don't know the lyrics, George Wendt's character explains that nobody does and thus it is acceptable to make up lyrics as they go along.
- In the 1996 movie Down Periscope, the crew of The Stingray sing the song in order to impersonate drunken fishermen.
The Three Amigos released a house version of the song in 1999.
In August 2003, 754 guitarists played a ten-minute rendition of "Louie Louie" at Cheney Stadium
, in Tacoma, Washington
, United States
The 2002 film, 24 Hour Party People features two performances of "Louie Louie", the first time in a cappella form. Both performances are led by 'John the Postman'.
The New York Yankees
played the song everytime fan favorite Luis Sojo
would get a hit or make a good play in the field.
During the 1988 football season at The University of South Carolina, many spectators reported seeing a ripple effect across the east upper deck of Williams-Brice Stadium when the marching band played the song "Louie Louie."
The song is played when Martin St. Louis scores a goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning when playing at the St. Pete Times Forum
The Seattle Mariners play "Louie Louie" at every home game during the bottom of the 7th inning.
Video game company Epyx
used "Louie Louie" as the theme music to their hit title California Games
, although the notes used in the Atari 2600
version were erroneous and bore little resemblance to the lead guitar part.
This song is playable on the 2004 North American release of Donkey Konga.
Alternate versions and interpolations
Some bands have taken liberties with the lyrics, including attempts to record the supposed "obscene lyrics". It is believed the first artists to do so were The Stooges
, whose version can be heard on their live album Metallic K.O. Iggy Pop
later recorded a more civilized cover version
of the song, with new lyrics composed by Pop, for his 1993 album American Caesar
. He continues to play it live at shows.
In 1988, rap trio The Fat Boys covered the song for its album Comin' Back Hard Again, with new lyrics by the band that focused on the history of the song.
The old school rap group Ultramagnetic MC's have a song called "Traveling at the Speed of Thought" (1989) which contains a sample of the "Louie Louie" riff.
In 2006, the Dave Matthews Band interpolated "Louie Louie" during various live jam versions of "Warehouse (Under the Table and Dreaming)".
References in song
A lyric in the 1995 John Prine
song "Lake Marie" goes "She fell asleep in my arms humming the tune to 'Louie Louie' // Oh baby, we gotta go now."
Transvision Vamp's song, "Baby I Don't Care", has an opening guitar riff similar to The Sonics cover of "Louie Louie". Wendy James's vocals are very similar to the Sonics' Gerry Roslie's scream.
In 2004, Todd Snider recorded "The Ballad of the Kingsmen". The song's lyrics include a brief history of the making of "Louie Louie" and the controversy that followed.
There is also a movement to declare April 11, Richard Berry's birthday, as International "Louie Louie" Day.
The Louie Louie riff
The chords to the main riff to "Louie Louie" (as played by the Kingsmen) are A major, D major
, and E minor
. (In chord symbols: A-A-A, D-D, Em-Em-Em, D-D; in more formal harmonic analysis
: I-I-I, IV-IV, v-v-v, IV-IV.) With the V most often as a major chord the I-IV-V chords can be heard in many songs in various keys, including the following: