R.I.P. Jack Ely

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Evidence that coherence is overrated — Sam Roberts, "Jack Ely, Who Sang the Kingsmen’s ‘Louie Louie’, Dies at 71", NYT 4/29/2015:

Jack Ely would later insist that as a 19-year-old singing “Louie Louie” in one take in a Portland, Ore., studio in 1963, he had followed the original lyrics faithfully. But, he admitted, the braces on his teeth had just been tightened, and he was howling to be heard over the band, with his head tilted awkwardly at a 45-degree angle at a single microphone dangling from the ceiling to simulate a live concert.

Which may explain why what originated innocently as a lovesick sailor’s calypso lament to a bartender named Louie morphed into the incoherent, three-chord garage-band cult classic by the Kingsmen that sold millions of copies, spawned countless cover versions and variations, was banned in Indiana, prompted the F.B.I. to investigate whether the song was secretly obscene, provoked a legal battle and became what Frank Zappa called “an archetypal American musical icon.”

In 1962, while playing at a club in Seaside, Ore., he noticed that the jukebox was spinning overtime with Rockin’ Robin Roberts and the Wailers’ 1961 version of “Louie Louie,” a song that Richard Berry, a Los Angeles musician, had written on a napkin and recorded in 1957.

Here's Richard Berry's 1957 version:

Here's Rockin' Robin Roberts' 1961 version:

Mr. Ely persuaded the Kingsmen and the band’s manager to record the song. They booked the Northwestern Inc. studio in Portland for an hour on April 6, 1963.

“It was more yelling than singing ’cause I was trying to be heard over all the instruments,” Mr. Ely recalled, according to Peter Blecha, a music historian, in his book “Sonic Boom! The History of Northwest Rock: From ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ ” (2009). He also began the third verse a few bars too soon and paused while the band caught up.

In an interview with the Oregon newspaper The Bend Bulletin in 1987, Mr. Ely recalled: “I stood there and yelled while the whole band was playing, and when it was over, we hated it. We thought it was a totally non-quality recording.”

But the Kingsmen's version is better than both the original Richard Berry version and the Rockin' Robin Roberts cover. I think the yelling has something to do with it, and the almost-impossible-to-understand lyrics.

High school and college students who thought they understood what Mr. Ely was singing traded transcripts of their meticulously researched translations of the lyrics. The F.B.I. began investigating after an Indiana parent wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1964: “My daughter brought home a record of ‘LOUIE LOUIE’ and I, after reading that the record had been banned on the air because it was obscene, proceeded to try to decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter.”

The F.B.I. Laboratory’s efforts at decryption were less fruitful. After more than two years and a 455-page report, the bureau concluded that “three governmental agencies dropped their investigations because they were unable to determine what the lyrics of the song were, even after listening to the records at speeds ranging from 16 r.p.m. to 78 r.p.m.”

Mr. Berry’s words, with a first verse that begins, “Fine little girl she wait for me/Me catch the ship for ’cross the sea,” are in fact completely benign. Whatever obscenities people thought they heard, the Kingsmen’s version hewed closely to the original — lyrically if not musically.

Mr. Blecha said Mr. Ely had assured him he had not inserted “incorrect lyrics,” but Mr. Blecha was convinced that Mr. Easton had uttered a single four-letter obscenity in the background of the recording when he accidentally struck the rim of his drum.

Historical notes: Rockin' Robin Roberts' version of "The Wailers" predates Bob Marley's (1963) band of the same name by several years. The name choice seems to be coincidental, since Wikipedia explains that "The lineup was known variously as the Teenagers, the Wailing Rudeboys, the Wailing Wailers and finally the Wailers". I heard them in Boston in 1965 when they opened for Donovan, though the promotional materials and the venue's marquee spelled their name as "The Whalers", which must have been confusing for all concerned.

And Richard Berry's band "The Pharoahs" is also a backwards echo of Sam the Sham's group, who were responsible for another 60's-era triumph of incoherence:


  1. Vasha said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

    Both the Richard Berry and the WaIlers versions suffer from incongruity of usin ˇme gotta go" in speech that otherwise shows little trace of any dialect (supposed to be Jamaican creole?) that would use "me" that way. At least Joe Ely overcomes that problem with the help of incompehenibility and a bizarre accent (a braces-just-tightened accent?)

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 1:18 pm

    Here are a few interpretations of the lyrics, as transcribed in the FBI investigation file:

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 1:28 pm

    Chuck Berry's "Havana Moon" repeatedly uses "me" as the nominative first-person-singular pronoun: ("Me all alone with jug of rum / Me stand and wait for boat to come" etc.). So if you were an American black songwriter in the mid-1950's it might have been your idea of how to sound vaguely "Caribbean" without actually closely tracking any actual Caribbean variety of speech (whether Jamaican Creole or Cuban-origin broken ESL).

    The Kingsmen's organ-player Don Gallucci (far left in the band picture with the obit) went on to further contributions to Western civilization by producing Funhouse, the second Stooges album, which is to punk rock what the early Jelly Roll Morton sides are to jazz, the Robert Johnson 78's are to blues, etc. The Stooges subsequently decided to make explicit the working theory that "Louie Louie" had vulgar lyrics. Thus, the legendary description by Lester Bangs of one of the last shows before the band broke up in '74:

    'The audience, which consisted largely of bikers, was unusually hostile, and Iggy, as usual, fed on that hostility, soaked it up and gave it back and absorbed it all over again in an eerie, frightening symbiosis. "All right," he finally said, stopping a song in the middle, "you assholes wanta hear 'Louie, Louie,' we'll give you 'Louie, Louie.'" So the Stooges played a forty-five-minute version of "Louie Louie," including new lyrics improvised by the Pop on the spot consisting of "You can suck my ass / You biker faggot sissies," etc.'

  4. Florence Artur said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 1:41 pm

    Being French, I will always hear Wully Bully as roulé-boulé said with an American accent. And no, it doesn't make any particular sense. Does it have to? I think that being from a non-English language country makes you inure from a very young age to the fact that pop songs don't make any kind of sense.

  5. Ross Bender said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 4:17 pm

    In 1986, about a year after moving to West Philly, I was privileged to witness the annual "Louie Louie" parade down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

    April 1, 1985 – First annual WMMR Louie Louie Parade in Philadelphia (cancelled in 1989 due to excessive rowdiness).

    For some reason Youtube has plenty of video of Louie Louie day in Peoria of all places, but I haven't found any of the classic Philly variety.


  6. seriously said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

    Someone had a job which required them to listen to "Louie, Louie" and issue a 455-page report?!? My whole career now seems like wormwood and gall…

    [(myl) For two years. At many different speeds.]

  7. Rubrick said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

    Those transcribed lyrics are breathtakingly funny; thanks, Ben!

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 7:25 pm

    "Me gotta go" is also found in Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" (1952), supposedly mimicking the English of (white) Cajuns.

  9. Jo-Nathan said,

    April 30, 2015 @ 8:56 pm

    Reminds me of this old Bloom County strip:


  10. AntC said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 4:55 am

    I'm more amazed at the record sleeve: The Kingsmen, the board and the shadows cast. In 1963 to be hip and rebellious you used a Chess piece??

  11. S.Norman said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 7:51 am

    '64 for the chessboard. '63 album used royal headgear as the motif.

    [(myl) Here's the 1963 album cover:

    Headgear-ish, at best.]

  12. KeithB said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 8:22 am

    There is a Far Side cartoon of a whale singing "Louie, Louie" into a hydrophone to some perplexed scientists. In "The Pre-history of the Far Side" Larson shows that in some Scandinavian country the caption was changed to "Singing in the Rain" without Gary's permission. He figured that "Louie, Louie" was a bit to obscure for them and said that "Singing in the Rain" was pretty funny, too.

  13. wally said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 8:23 am

    I don't know that being rebellious, particularly, was a top priority in 1963. That kind of came later. And for a group called the Kingsmen chess motifs make a lot of sense.

  14. Jason said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 10:24 am

    @seriously This was J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. No further explanation needed, I trust.

  15. maidhc said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 8:42 pm

    It was Paul Revere and the Raiders who came up with the intro "Grab your woman, it's Louie Louie time!", but their version never caught on.

  16. maidhc said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 8:50 pm

    Richard Berry took the riff from a song called El loco Cha cha cha.

  17. maidhc said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 9:00 pm

    I don't think "Wooly Bully" was that hard to understand. Wooly Bully was Sam's cat. The only tricky part is knowing that L7 means "square".

  18. George said,

    May 5, 2015 @ 8:00 am

    @ Florence Artur

    There was a French parody version of Wooly Bully back in the '80s or '90s on the theme of drunk driving called 'Rouler Bourré', which is pretty close.

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