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.”