Remembering Elvis

(Published in the Calgary Herald on Aug. 16, 1997)

Those who cared will still remember what they were doing when they heard the news, 20 years ago today. I was interviewing Calgary concert promoter Dave Horodezky at his office when he excused himself to take a call. “What a shame,” said Dave, after a moment’s silence. “What a black day for rock ‘n’ roll.”

What a black day indeed. For members of the first rock ‘n’ roll generation, Elvis Presley’s death at age 42 brought home to us the sobering reality of our own mortality. I was 33 then, and suddenly felt much older.

Other rockers — Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix — had died before Elvis. But we could rationalize their deaths as avoidable aberrations, caused by plane crashes or drug overdoses. Elvis’s death hit closer to home because he was the first of the original rockers to die from natural causes. Or so we thought at the time. It was only later we would discover that pills and southern-fried cholesterol were contributory factors.

I cared about Elvis because his music, wild, loud, uninhibited, was joyously different from the Mantovani music my parents listened to on Radio Eireann, the national broadcasting service in my native Ireland.

At age 13, it was important for me to have things private and unshareable — things that were exclusive teenage property. The sideburns and ducktail hairdo would come later. In the beginning, it was enough just to have the music, the raw sound, beamed to us from across the Atlantic via the only commercial pop music station, Radio Luxembourg, that could be picked up in Dublin in those unenlightened times. My friends and I listened to it surreptitiously after dark, when the station pointed its signal toward the British Isles.

Elvis didn’t invent white rock ‘n’ roll, of course, but he was unquestionably its first universal hero. Bill Haley, who scored the first huge rock ‘n’ roll hit with Rock Around the Clock, didn’t count because we knew he was just a failed country and western singer who got lucky with a new gimmick.

Elvis was the real thing, an American hillbilly with danger in his voice and rebellion in his soul, who took his surly look from the movie characters of Marlon Brando and James Dean, took his good-rocking music from the black gospel, and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers he heard on the radio as a kid, then synthesized these various borrowings into something original, something distinctively his own.

Competing for our young ears during the same period were other top U.S. rock ‘n’ rollers, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Little Richard. But good as they were, they could not compare with Elvis, who commanded from the first day we heard him. First with Heartbreak Hotel, and later with Don’t Be Cruel and Hound Dog, he ruled the airwaves like never before.

My friends and I would suffer through two hours of hit-parade Perry Como and Dean Martin on Radio Luxembourg every Sunday night just to hear three minutes of Elvis singing Don’t Be Cruel. By the end of that memorable year, 1956, Elvis had racked up half a dozen record hits, and earned the right to be forever called the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. No one would ever dethrone him. From that moment onward, Presley would be the once and future king.

The generation that followed, the teenagers who had their life’s soundtrack composed for them by the Beatles, would doubtless disagree. They would say Elvis was nothing more than a brooding singer with an average voice, swivelling hips and limited guitar-playing ability. Heck, he didn’t even write his own songs.

But then they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t understand why Calgary Herald editor Bob Parkins showed up for work on Aug. 17, 1977, wearing a black arm-band. They wouldn’t understand why, for those of us who were teenagers in 1956, even the most mediocre of the first Presley recordings could make the pop music that followed seem as nothing, to be blown away like chaff.

I don’t much understand it either. I don’t understand why Pavarotti appeals to me more than the technically superior Placido Domingo, and I can’t explain why Elvis ruled and Pat Boone didn’t. Boone also released several rock hits in 1956, including Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally. But he couldn’t hold a candle to Presley. Maybe it was because Boone sounded like someone my parents would have approved of.

I almost never listen to Elvis’s recordings nowadays, though I will always play his Blue Christmas in my house at Christmastime while resolutely refusing to listen to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Fats Waller and John Field have taken the place of the popular music I craved as a teenager. The Presley impersonators have ruined his songs for me by reducing them to parody.

But whenever someone suggests, as a 30-year-old friend named Tom did recently, that Elvis was not very good, I put Presley’s July 2, 2021 recording of Hound Dog on the turntable, and listen to it one more time. I hear what you say, Tom, but I have to disagree. Elvis was good. He was very good.

 

In the Eye of a Tornado – 31 July 2021

THE FIRST PERSON to identify the cloud as a tornado was a 44-year-old Leduc pharmacist named Tom Taylor. It was the Friday afternoon of the August 1 long weekend and Taylor was at home on his acreage,  three kilometres northeast of Leduc, getting ready to work the four to midnight shift at NuWay Drugs. The weather in the Edmonton region had been exceptionally hot and muggy during the previous week, with temperatures soaring above thirty degrees Celsius during the day and thunderstorms exploding over the area at night. Taylor fed his Labrador retriever, Snooker, at 2:30 pm and looked up at the darkening sky. “Looks like the storm could be blowing in early today,” he thought. He went inside, fixed himself a sandwich for supper, and doffed his clothes to take a bath. As he lowered himself into the tub, he could hear rain and hailstones hitting the metal chimney, and thunder that got louder with every clap. He quickly jumped out of the tub, thinking it might not be the safest place to be in a thunderstorm.

The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. From his second-floor window Taylor could see a large cloud gathering to the south over Leduc and a smaller cloud, resembling a wasp’s nest, hanging below it. The rope-shaped tail of the nest corkscrewed toward the ground, touched down briefly, sucked up debris, and exploded. “It was incredible,” Taylor told a friend afterwards. “It went from a dormant state to a full-blown tornado and it didn’t take one second. It was like turning on a switch.”

At five minutes to three, Taylor called Environment Canada’s weather office at the Edmonton International Airport. He reached meteorologist Garry Atchison, head of the office’s “severe weather” team. “I’ve just seen a funnel,” said Taylor, “and it touched the ground.” Atchison had been tracking the storm on radar as it travelled north from Red Deer and had issued periodic weather advisories about hail, lightning and damaging winds. Now he knew he had been watching something more serious. “I better get a tornado warning out,” he said. He dispatched the message to local radio and television stations at 3:07 pm By then the tornado had embarked along a 40-kilometre path of destruction that would result in twenty-seven deaths, hundreds of injuries, more than one thousand homeless, and $330 million in property damage.

Taylor stood on his garage roof and watched the tornado for another twenty minutes as it swung northward toward Beaumont, a farming community just south of Edmonton. The storm continued on toward the southeast Edmonton subdivision of Mill Woods, beyond which Taylor could see the flare stacks of Refinery Row and the skyscrapers of Edmonton’s downtown. He snapped a few photographs and then drove into Leduc to start his shift. The pharmacy cashier didn’t believe him when he told her he had just seen a tornado.

MAJOR LOSS OF LIFE

The tornado sucked up cattle and swept them to their deaths as it passed through Beaumont. In Mill Woods it ripped roofs of houses and shredded fences. It unleashed its full force when it reached the industrial district located between Edmonton and the suburban municipality of Sherwood Park, eight kilometres to the east. It blew cars and tractor-trailers into the air, picked up oil storage tanks and bounced them like beach balls, reduced buildings to kindling, and killed several people.

The biggest single loss of life—14 deaths—occurred when the tornado hit the Evergreen Mobile Home Park, a 720-residence development surrounded by farmers’ fields and nurseries in the city’s northeastern corner. The park’s seventeen hundred inhabitants had no basements in which to hide and not enough warning to get out of the storm’s path.

Evergreen resident Marin Athanasopoulos, a dark-haired, 30-year-old mother of four, was at home with her children, writing a letter to her mother-in-law in Ontario, when the tornado hit. Her two oldest boys, eleven-year-old Robert and five-year-old George were playing in the front yard while two-year-old Joseph and baby Kosta, ten months old, were in the house sleeping. At 3:40 pm the power in the park went off. “Here we go again, the power is always going off in this place,” Marin said to herself. “Now we can’t eat the supper in the oven, so we’ll just have to have a picnic. We’ll spread a blanket on the living room floor and have some fun.” She looked out the living-room window and saw big dark clouds racing across the sky. “Check this out,” she said to Robert as he and George came in from the yard. “I’ve never seen clouds moving that fast before.”

Down the street, the wind plucked a roof from a house and tossed it into the air. Marin watched it fly and then ran outside to put away the children’s toys. The wind flung her against the gate and carried away the toys. She shut the door of the garden shed just as its roof blew off. She had asked her husband to fix the roof because she knew it was coming loose, and clearly he hadn’t done it properly. She thought of the choice words she would use to reprimand him when he got home from work. He worked as a cook at Capital Pizza and was due home at 6:30 pm.

The baby, Kosta, was awake and crying in his crib as she went back into the house. She lifted him up, carried him into the living room, and sat with him watching the storm. The eaves trough extended four feet out from the roof, and she could see it shaking and starting to bend. “Oh, no,” she said. “We should have cut that thing off. It’s going to hit our car.” The car, normally driven by her husband, had recently received a new paint job. He had taken her old car to work so that the newly painted car wouldn’t get dented or scratched. She yelled at Robert to grab her car keys from the kitchen. She could hear windows starting to break throughout the house. The sound of the storm was so loud that she felt like she was standing under the engine of a jet airplane. She cradled the baby in her arms and ran down the hallway toward the wing that had been added to their trailer home. Two-year-old Joseph was in the wing, lying in a bunk bed. While she ran she felt the house bouncing up and down like popcorn in a machine. Behind her, the living room furniture was being sucked out one window while someone else’s furniture was coming in through another. Wooden two by fours were coming through the walls. The park outside was shrouded in darkness.

Robert and George ran behind her. Robert was shouting, “Here’s the keys. Here’s the keys.” Marin stopped, turned, took the car keys from Robert, put them on top of the freezer, and handed the baby to Robert. “You stay there while I check on Joseph,” she said.  She carried on alone into the back wing and snatched up the two-year-old from his bed. As they came out through the doorway the wing collapsed behind them. Marin would learn later that the trailer home next door had landed on top of the wing. At that point her home briefly stopped bouncing. “What is it? What is it?” asked Robert. Marin decided she knew what it was because she had seen this scene in The Wizard of Oz. “It’s a tornado,” she said quietly.

STAYING SAFE IN A TORNADO

She remembered what her uncle in Michigan had said to her about staying safe in a tornado: “You go to the basement or you stand in a doorway.” She didn’t have a basement, so she stood in her bedroom doorway hugging her children close. Through the window they could see a trailer home shooting up into the air and blowing apart. Their house had started bouncing again. Marin started praying. “Please God, don’t leave some of my babies to wake up in this mess and find the rest of us dead,” she said. “Don’t do that to my babies. If this is the end, make it the end for all of us.”

The house finally stopped bouncing and the roaring outside stopped. It had seemed like an eternity but it had taken just ten minutes for the tornado to churn through the park. A deathly silence blanketed the park. The children started to cry. Marin checked each one of them for possible injuries and then started clawing through the rubble. “My neighbours will be on the other side digging, because I’ve seen this on TV,” she thought. “You dig, they dig, and then you meet in the middle.”

When she got through the rubble, there were no neighbours to meet her on the other side. All she could see was more rubble and what looked like human figures growing out of the piles of garbage. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she thought. “Maybe we’ve been bombed.” “But why would they bomb us? It doesn’t make sense; why would they bomb Evergreen?”  Then she remembered that that the park had been hit by a tornado.

Her uncle had told her that tornadoes could sometimes come in sequence. “That twister can come back,” she thought, momentarily panic-stricken. “I’ve got to get my kids out of here.” But they were in summer clothes with bare feet. She couldn’t have them walking through the garbage and the rubble like that. She took the children back through the ruins of her house to look for coats and shoes. She could feel a scream emanating from deep inside her, but she held it in check because she didn’t want the children to know she was afraid. “I can’t be upset,” she thought. “I have to act normal.” She dressed the children in coats and shoes and then went back outside into the pouring rain.

DEATH AND DESTRUCTION

A mountain of twisted metal, drywall, paper, glass and wooden debris blocked the approach to the strip mall, near the entrance to the park. As Marin came close to it she realized it was all that remained of the home where her babysitter, Edith, had lived. Did Edith make it out safely? That’s when Marin lost control. She uttered a long and anguished scream. She held son Joseph in her left arm and started clawing through the rubble with her right hand. “I’ve got to find my babysitter,” she shrieked. A man gently pushed her away from the debris. “You can’t help,” he said. “You need to look after your children.” Marin would learn later that Edith was safe,

She entered the Evergreen Supermarket, and looked for a roll of paper towel to wipe the rain from her eyeglasses. There was nobody behind the counter. “He won’t mind if I take some towel,” she thought. “I’ll pay him later.” She sat the two youngest children on the counter and went to fetch the towel. The older children screamed at her to come back. They pointed to a man lying on the floor with a two by four impaling his chest. Marin grabbed the children and ran from the store.

DOWNTOWN EDMONTON ESCAPES

When they arrived at the park entrance, Marin spotted an Edmonton police constable sitting in a cruiser. She walked up to him and said, “My name is Marin Athanasopoulos, and these are my four children, Robert, George, Joseph and Kosta. We lived in number thirty-four. Where do we register?”

The officer looked perplexed. “Register?” he said.

“Yes, we’re survivors in a disaster,” said Marin, repeating her name and the names of her children. “We need to register that we’re safe. My husband will be looking for us.”

She asked the policeman if the tornado had hit downtown Edmonton. “No,” he replied. “The city’s fine.”

“Then my husband will be coming for us,” said Marin. “We’ll be on the bus. Would you please tell him that that’s where we are.” She steered the children toward the waiting Edmonton Transit bus. She sat with the children at the back of the bus, where she thought they would be safe if the tornado came back.

Through the window of the bus she saw a man in a yellow raincoat carrying a bleeding and bruised baby. Marin recognized the week-old infant as the daughter of a sixteen-year-old girl who had done some babysitting for her. Marin ran to the front door of the bus.

“You should give me that baby, I know her mother,” she said to the man. The baby was soaked from the rain, and clad only in a diaper and T-shirt.

“You’ll have to keep her nasal passages clear,” he said. “I had to clear her passages twice already.”

The baby gurgled, rolled back her eyes, and stopped breathing just as Marin took her aboard the bus. Panic-stricken and unsure as to how she should clear the baby’s passages, Marin poked a finger down her throat. The baby coughed, vomited, and started breathing again. Relieved but still concerned that the baby might die, Marin carried her away from the bus and handed her to the policeman, a constable named Bill Clark.

“What’s her name?” asked Clark.

“I can’t remember,” replied Marin.

“That’s all right,” said Clark. He took a yellow survival blanket from his trunk and wrapped the baby in it. The baby was struggling to breathe and seemed to be in pain.

Clark radioed for an ambulance. “We don’t have any,” said the dispatcher. “They’re all tied up.” Clark decided to perform ambulance duty himself. He put the baby in his lap and turned the key in the ignition. He told Marin he would take the baby to the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

Clark drove toward the hospital at top speed, weaving through stalled traffic like a rally driver and bouncing over grass medians. The trip seemed to take forever. Every road in northeast Edmonton was littered with downed trees and power lines. Every underpass was flooded. Clark held the steering wheel with one hand and gently pulled on the baby’s fingers and toes with the other until the cruiser reached the hospital. If the baby winced, he knew she was still alive. The baby survived. Fourteen at Evergreen did not.

BUS TO ALBERTA HOSPITAL

The bus took Marin and her children and the other tornado refugees to nearby Alberta Hospital, a psychiatric facility. Marin had left the trailer park without her purse so she asked a nurse to give her a quarter to phone her husband. It was now dinnertime and the restaurant was busy. A waitress answered the phone and then sent word back to the kitchen that Marin’s husband, Denis, should take the call. He was not happy to be pulled away from the kitchen during the busiest period of his working day and, like many Edmontonians, was unaware yet that a tornado had struck the city. Marin assured him that she and the children were safe, asked him to phone her parents, and said she would meet him at the restaurant when the hospital staff cleared them for release.

Denis didn’t wait for Marin and the children to get there. When he finished his shift he jumped in his car and arrived at the hospital just as someone was shouting that another tornado was about to hit. Scared and screaming, the survivors and hospital staff ran downstairs into the tunnels that connected different parts of the hospital. They cowered there for half an hour until a false alarm was declared.

RETURNING TO EVERGREEN

When Marin was finally released from the hospital she told Denis that she needed to go back to Evergreen to fetch her purse and pick up diapers and formula for the baby. They had to go via a back road because police and emergency vehicles blocked the front entrance. Marin stared sadly at her broken home. It was still standing, with someone else’s trailer piled on top of what had been the children’s bedroom. Worried about looters, she stuffed as many valuables as he could into a sleeping bag, along with the diapers, clothing and bottles.

They stayed the night at a friend’s house and returned to Evergreen the following day to retrieve some more of their belongings. A woman from Alberta Victim Services accompanied them to the home, and told Marin what items she should look for: “Do you know where your marriage licence is? Your birth certificate? Jewelry?” Marin didn’t know where any of those things were. But in the bathroom cupboard she knew she had some toilet paper that she had bought on sale for twenty cents a roll. “If I don’t get my toilet paper, I didn’t get a good sale,” said Marin. “And if I don’t get the margarine from my freezer, that won’t have been a good sale either.” The woman assured her that the toilet paper and the margarine would be put to good use. “You should look for the things that have a greater meaning for you; the things that will help you put your life back together.”

Marin and her family remained homeless for the next two months. The Red Cross put them up in a hotel for a couple of weeks, and their insurance paid for an apartment rental while they waited to move back to Evergreen. A friend told her she should use the insurance money and provincial government compensation to buy a house in Edmonton, but Marin was determined to move back.

“I live in Evergreen for a reason,” she said. “It’s a beautiful, quiet, country-living, safe neighbourhood to raise my children. That’s why I moved there and no windstorm is going to scare me away. I’m going right back there. I’m not going to be scared away and made to live in the city. I don’t like the city. I like where I live.” She told her children that God had protected them from the tornado because they had a Palm Sunday wreath on their front door and a statue of the Last Supper in the living room.

It would be 15 years before the nightmares would go away, 15 years before Marin could listen to thunder without panicking, 15 years before she could resist the urge to flee whenever a storm approached Evergreen. But for now she had a role to play, advocating for tornado victims without insurance, lobbying government officials, speaking to the media, attending memorial services, holding hands, comforting those who lost loved ones, participating in support group sessions, and telling people over and over again that there is a rainbow at the end of every storm.

It was the least she could do.

[First published in Boondoggles, Bonanzas and Other Alberta Stories (Fifth House, 2003)]

Don’t leave the driving to Greyhound

According to its website, Greyhound views itself as an “icon of bus travel, providing safe, enjoyable, and affordable travel to 6.5 million passengers each year.” Count me as one of the 6.5 million who won’t be looking for the running dog next time I want to leave the driving to someone else. An annoying recent experience with the bus company has made the decision easy for me.

I was travelling from Jasper to Edmonton. The bus was waiting at the terminal when I arrived, one hour before the scheduled 1:00 p.m. departure time. The driver was there too, but clearly in no hurry to leave. He kept the passengers waiting more than 30 minutes before allowing us to board. He offered no explanation or apology for the delay. Nor did he tell us what time the bus would now be arriving in Edmonton. He just gave us the standard spiel about no liquor consumption or smoking allowed on the bus, the location of the washroom, and so on.

There were no weather or traffic issues to slow the bus down en route to Edmonton. The roads were bare and dry, and the weather was clear. I assumed the driver would be able to make up for the lost time on the five-hour trip, but no such luck. The bus was 35 minutes late when it left Jasper, and 45 minutes late when it arrived in Edmonton.

If the driver had given us a reason for the late departure, that would have been appreciated. If he had given an apology, that would have been appreciated even more. Where was the common courtesy? Where was the customer service? I wrote a polite letter to Greyhound’s senior vice-president for Canada asking for answers.

He did not bother to reply.

July 26 update: Greyhound’s senior vice-president for Canada – his name is Stuart Kendrick – still has not bothered to reply.

No more Sunday papers

Postmedia Network has scrapped the Sunday editions of the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and Ottawa Citizen, put the National Post’s Monday edition on hiatus for the second summer in a row, and announced plans to stop publishing print editions of the chain’s papers on national holidays. More newsroom jobs will be lost, local news coverage will continue to shrink, and the future of the business will continue to look bleak. Pat O’Callaghan must be turning in his grave.

It seems like only yesterday (it was actually in 1982) that O’Callaghan came to Calgary from Edmonton to become the Herald’s publisher. At the time, the upstart Calgary Sun had a Sunday edition, but not the Herald. ”This minor daily paper should not have the Sunday market all to itself,” said O’Callaghan. He announced that the Herald would thenceforth publish its own Sunday edition because “we live in a seven-day world.” Three years later, he added a Sunday magazine to the paper. That supplement appeared for the next six years, and won a few national and regional awards for writing and photography. (Full disclosure: I was one of the magazine’s writers.)

Although the Sunday magazine had its own dedicated staff – two full-time writers, one full-time photographer, two full-time copy editors, and an editor-in-chief – the same did not hold true for the Sunday paper itself. That was a missed opportunity, to my mind. Instead of stretching six days of coverage over seven, Herald management should have put a full-time team of reporters, editors and photographers in place to produce an independent Sunday paper.

Management should also have taken some of those additional Sunday advertising dollars and used them to recruit a rotating roster of guest columnists (Aritha van Herk, Sharon Pollock, Fred Stenson, Sid Marty, Sam Selvon, etc.) to give the Sunday paper its own voice and identity. The resulting publication might not have had the same cachet as the Sunday New York Times, or even the Saturday Globe with its great standalone book review section, now much missed. But at least it would have stood out from the Monday to Saturday editions as a paper with a distinctive style and tone.

By the time Herald management finally got around to remaking the Sunday paper in accordance with reader surveys, it was too little too late. The paper was heavy on cosmetic changes and light on content reimagining. There was little in it for readers who had grown used to living without a local Sunday paper.

What will the Herald lose when the Sunday edition is axed at the end of July? We have yet to hear what sections will move to Saturday and to other days of the week. But I think it’s fair to speculate that books coverage will not be one of them. Book reviews don’t attract advertising and now, more than ever, advertising support is the key to the Herald’s survival. Sad but true.

One section deserves to die. The paper should get rid of the Sunday spreads of photos from the local cocktail party scene that, to my mind, take up an unnecessary amount of valuable space. But Corporate Calgary has to be kept happy, I suppose, so these pretty pictures are undoubtedly here to stay. Atwood will become irrelevant but the Stampede Queen must reign forever.

O’Callaghan was handed a great gig when he became the Herald’s publisher. Not only did he have the freedom to launch a Sunday edition and magazine, but he also had the freedom to make the Herald reflect his philosophy that a newspaper should “never be bland, colourless or gutless.”

Today, there is plenty of bland, precious little colour, and hardly any gutsiness. That’s what happens when you’re owned by a bunch New York hedge funds that care only about profit.

I see no light at the end of this tunnel. The demise of the Sunday editions is just the beginning of the end for Postmedia as a publisher of printed newspapers. I can only echo the wise words of a first-year journalism student who said to me recently, “I feel like we’re being trained to work for a business that will no longer exist by the time we graduate.”

 

 

The man who wrote “Louie Louie”

The song starts with a guitar strum, three of the easiest chords you can learn to play on the instrument. The sequence is:

Three A chords followed by a one-beat rest;

Two D chords followed by a two-beat rest;

Three E minor chords followed by a one-beat rest;

Two D chords followed by a two-beat rest.

Go back to the beginning and repeat ad infinitum.

Practise the pattern for half an hour, and you have unlocked the very secret of rock ‘n’ roll. With these three chords, you can play the trashiest and most sublime piece of junk in the history of popular music. With these three chords, you can play the song that goes:

Louie Louie, me gotta go

Louie Louie, me gotta go ...

Now, there are people who will tell you that some of the remaining words should not be used in polite company. Back in 1963, when the song was recorded by a little-known Portland group named The Kingsmen, it was widely believed that if you listened to the garbled lyrics of “Louie Louie” with a knowing ear, you would hear graphic descriptions of debauchery and bliss:

Every night at ten I lay her again … She’s the girl I’ve got to lay … I tell her I’ll never lay her again …

The state of Indiana banned the song from the radio airwaves. The FBI, responding to an anonymous record buyer’s complaint, conducted a 30-month investigation which consolidated “Louie Louie’s” reputation as a dirty song. Though the FBI concluded that the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed,” the rumours about the dirty words continued to circulate.

Was the song obscene? The Kingsmen disavowed any intentional lewdness. That only added to the mystique of the song, and kept kids buying the record. The one person who might have resolved the mystery was the composer, and he wasn’t saying.

His name was Richard Berry. He was a moderately successful doo-wop singer and composer in Los Angeles who wrote “Louie Louie” in 1955 for the B-side of what he hoped would be a new hit single of “You Are My Sunshine.” He intended “Louie Louie” as a calypso-style love song about a lovesick Jamaican sailor who wants to go back home to the woman he left behind.

Though Berry’s 1955 version did achieve some local success in the Los Angeles area, he sold the publishing rights for $750 when he figured the song had run its course. Instead of disappearing from sight, however, “Louie Louie” became a staple of the bar-band circuit in the Pacific Northwest.

The Kingsmen were a high school party band in Portland. They recorded their crude and sloppy version of Louie Louie, in a $50 studio with one microphone, at the same time in 1963 that a more-established Portland band, Paul Revere and the Raiders, covered the song. The Kingsmen’s version was the surprise success, thanks to a Boston disc jockey, Arnie (Woo Woo) Ginsberg. He played it twice, proclaimed it the worst record of the week, and unintentionally turned the song into a national hit. During the height of the controversy over the allegedly dirty words, teenagers from Miami to Inuvik passed around handwritten notes containing what they said were the real lyrics of “Louie Louie.”

Because of the rumors, “Louie Louie” became more than a pop song. It became a cultural phenomenon. Hundreds of new recordings of the tune appeared. The Beach Boys recording a surfing version. Floyd Cramer did it country-piano style. Otis Redding sang a soul version. Bruce Springsteen turned it into an All-American rock ‘n’ roll anthem. When the movie Animal House was released in 1978, “Louie Louie” became the song of choice for toga parties around the world, copying actor John Belushi and his fraternity pals.

The song also made a guest appearance in American Grafitti, Wayne’s World 2, and Mr. Holland’s Opus. During the 1980s, composer Berry sought to rectify his mistake of having prematurely sold the publishing rights to what by now had become the universal party song. He acquired some legal help, and received a big payment.

In 1983, Berry finally began to receive international recognition for his composition. A California college radio station played 800 versions of the song during what it called a “Maximum Louie Louie” weekend. The heavily-promoted event was covered by media world-wide. Berry was bombarded with requests for interviews and performances. After three decades of obscurity, he was back in the spotlight.

As his new-found celebrity grew, Berry continued to live in his old neighborhood of south-central Los Angeles, working within his community to make it a better place. He made personal appearances around the States until a heart operation in December, 1994, forced him to cut back.

Berry could never understand the enduring popularity of the song. “It has three stupid guitar-chord changes in it,” he told reporters. “It’s such an easy song to play. The marching band at my daughter’s high school even plays it.”

Asked about the “dirty” lyrics, Berry smiled and offered a politician’s reply: “What happened is that a bunch of college kids in Indiana got hold of a printing press and started printing up and distributing their own ideas of what they thought they heard.”

Berry was 61 when he died in 1997, in his sleep at his Los Angeles home. By one count, there are now more than 1,500 recorded versions of Berry’s composition, making it the most covered pop song after Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.” The state of Washington has adopted it as the official state song, and several “Louie Louie” sites have appeared on the Internet pledging to keep the memory alive.

“Louie Louie remains the best of songs and the worst of songs,” wrote Dave Marsh in his 1993 book, Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World’s Most Famous Rock ‘n’ Roll Song. “It tells the story of rock ‘n’ roll all by itself.”