I listen to so much music and have a passion for a wide variety of styles. There are so many great bands out there, from so many eras, that it would be impossible to think of a favorite. But if somebody asked me what my favorite song of all time was, my instant reaction would be “Louie Louie”, by the Kingsmen.
Louie Louie was written in 1955 by Richard Berry, which he recorded for the Flip Label in a somewhat calypso-meets-doowop style with his band, The Pharaohs. It’s a great little tune, with a wonderful baritone singer holding down the rhythm, but thank the lucky stars that he needed some money for his wedding and sold the publishing rights. For whatever reason the track really took hold in the pacific northwest, and countless bands from Washington and Portland covered it throughout the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. But no version out there can top the 1963 single by The Kingsmen. It rocks with such wild abandon, with its compressed, punchy delivery, and it’s drunken-style vocals hiding within the chaotic mix of drums, guitar, bass and keyboards. This short-lived band created to me the song that helped define what rock n roll was.
Richard Berry, the songwriter
The Kingsmen formed in 1959 while in high school and consisted of Jack Ely (vocals/guitar), Lynn Easton (drums), Mike Mitchell (guitar), Don Gallucci (keyboards) and Bob Nordby (bass). After playing a few years at local dances and talent shows, they recorded Louie Louie at Northwestern Recording for $36 as a demo to get better gigs. The gigs didn’t come and the band split because of a rift between singer Jack Ely and drummer Lynn Easton. This caused a bit of confusion after the song became a nation-wide hit, as both Jack Ely and Lynn Easton formed their own versions of the Kingsmen to go on the road to take advantage of the single's success.
Jack Ely's version of the Kingsmen
They keyboardist starts it off with 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2 and the rest of the band joins in, strong and loud. You can hear the singer at the very beginning give an off-mic rebel yell. My favorite instruments are the drums and the bass. The drummer is out of control; playing hard with fills all over the place, (in a good way!) with lots of echo bouncing off the walls around him. The bassist is playing with a pick, and is one of the loudest instruments in the mix. The lyrics are raucous and unintelligible which later got the band into trouble with the FBI. My favorite part is right after the guitar solo, when the singer comes in with the verse, then immediately stops because he thinks he’s come in at the wrong spot. The drummer then covers the error with a delightful fill and the singer starts again. The whole band seems to follow this flub except for the keyboardist, who starts playing the chorus a stanza before the rest of the band. The guitar solo is blistering too, dry with no reverb but cutting through with mid-range twang (much lower in the mix behind him, the drummer is playing a non-stop solo….give it a listen!).
Lynn Easton's Kingsmen
In 1964 an outraged parent wrote to Robert Kennedy, then attorney general, alleging the lyrics were obscene. The FBI investigated the complaint, and studied the song in their labs for 2 years before coming to the conclusion that you can’t understand what the hell he’s saying.
It's one of the most covered songs ever (about 1,600 recorded versions now). Simple, 3 chord rock n roll. A song that just can’t be beat in my opinion.