|A-side "You Are My Sunshine"|
Released April 1957
|B-side "Louie Louie"|
Format Vinyl single
Genre Rhythm and blues
"Louie Louie" is an American rhythm and blues song written by Richard Berry in 1955 and best known for the 1963 hit version by The Kingsmen. It has become a standard in pop and rock, with hundreds of versions recorded by different artists. The song was originally written and performed in the style of a Jamaican ballad. It tells, in simple verse–chorus form, the first-person story of a Jamaican sailor returning to the island to see his lady love.
- Original version by Richard Berry
- Cover versions
- Rockin' Robin Roberts
- The Kingsmen
- Paul Revere & the Raiders
- Other 1960s versions
- Other 1970s versions
- Black Flag
- Other 1980s versions
- Answer songs and sequels
- Lyrics investigation
- Cultural impact
- Use in movies
- Washington State Song
- International Louie Louie Day
- Louie Louie sculpture
- Recognition and rankings
The Kingsmen's edition was the subject of an FBI investigation about the supposed but nonexistent obscenity of the lyrics, an investigation that ended without prosecution. Ironically, the song notably includes the drummer yelling "Fuck!" after dropping his drumstick at the 0:54 mark.
"Louie Louie" has been recognized by organizations and publications worldwide for its influence on the history of rock and roll. A partial list (see "Recognition and rankings" table below) includes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, National Public Radio, VH1, Rolling Stone, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Recording Industry Association of America. In addition to new versions appearing regularly on YouTube and elsewhere, other major examples of the song's legacy include the unsuccessful attempt in 1985 to make it the state song of Washington, the celebration of International Louie Louie Day every year on April 11, the annual Louie Louie Parade in Philadelphia from 1985 to 1989, the LouieFest in Tacoma from 2003 to 2012, and the ongoing annual Louie Louie Parade and Festival in Peoria.
Original version by Richard Berry
Richard Berry 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 "El Loco Cha Cha" 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's bartender's name is Louie). 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 (Flip Records 321), originally as a B-side, with his backing band the Pharaohs, and scored a regional hit on the west coast, particularly in San Francisco. When the group toured the Pacific Northwest, local R&B bands began to play the song, increasing its popularity. The track was then re-released as an A-side. 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 follow-ups, 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.
Although similar to the original, the version on Rhino's 1983 The Best of Louie, Louie compilation is actually a note-for-note re-recording created because licensing could not be obtained for Berry's 1957 version. The original version was not released on CD until the Ace Records Love That Louie compilation in 2002.
By some accounts "Louie Louie" is the world's most recorded rock song with over 1,600 versions and counting (with more appearing regularly on YouTube and elsewhere).
Rockin' Robin Roberts
Robin Roberts developed an interest in rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues records as a high school student in Tacoma, Washington. Among the songs he began performing as an occasional guest singer with a local band, the Bluenotes, in 1958 were "Louie Louie", which he had heard on Berry's obscure original single, and Bobby Day's "Rockin' Robin", which gave him his stage name. In 1959, Roberts left the Bluenotes and began singing with another local band, the Wailers (often known as the Fabulous Wailers, who had had a hit record with the instrumental "Tall Cool One"). Known for his dynamic onstage performances, Roberts added "Louie Louie" to the band's set and, in 1960 recorded the track with the Wailers as his backing band. The arrangement, devised by Roberts with the band, included Roberts' ad-lib "Let's give it to 'em, RIGHT NOW!!" Released on the band's own label, Etiquette, in early 1961, it became a hit locally and was then reissued and promoted by Liberty Records in Los Angeles, but it failed to chart. Roberts was killed in an automobile accident in 1967.
On April 6, 1963, a rock and roll group from Portland, Oregon, called the Kingsmen, chose "Louie Louie" as their second recording, their first having been "Peter Gunn Rock". The Kingsmen recorded the song at Northwestern, Inc., Motion Pictures and Recording in Portland. The session cost $50, and the band split the cost. (On September 5, 2013, the city of Portland dedicated a plaque at the site, 411 SW 13th Avenue, to commemorate the event. An earlier version placed by the Oregon Historical Society had been stolen shortly after its dedication in 1993.)
The session was produced by Ken Chase. 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 the recording by Rockin' Robin Roberts with the Fabulous Wailers, unintentionally introducing a 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-minute 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".
A significant error on the Kingsmen version occurs just after the lead guitar break. As the group was going by the Wailers version, which has a brief restatement of the riff two times over before the lead vocalist comes back in, it would be expected that Ely would do the same. Ely, however, overshot his mark, coming in too soon, before the restatement of the riff. He realized his mistake and stopped the verse short, but the band did not realize that he had done so. As a quick fix, drummer Lynn Easton covered the pause with a drum fill, but before the verse ended, the rest of the band went into the chorus at the point where they expected it to be. This error is now so embedded in the consciousness of some groups that they deliberately duplicate it when performing the song.
The Kingsmen transformed Berry's easy-going ballad into a raucous romp, complete with a twangy guitar, occasional background chatter, and nearly unintelligible lyrics by Ely. A guitar break is triggered by the shout, "Okay, let's give it to 'em right now!", which first appeared in the Wailers version, as did the entire guitar break (although, in the Wailers version, a few notes differ, and the entire band played the break). 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."
First released in May 1963, the single was initially issued by the small Jerden label, before being picked up by the larger Wand Records and released by them in October 1963. It entered the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for December 7, and peaked at number two the following week, a spot which it held for six non-consecutive weeks; it would remain in the top 10 through December and January before dropping off in early February. In total, the Kingsmen's version spent 16 weeks on the Hot 100. (Singles by the Singing Nun, then Bobby Vinton, monopolized the top slot for eight weeks.) "Louie Louie" did reach number one on the Cashbox pop chart for two weeks, as well as number one on the Cashbox R&B chart. It was the last #1 on Cashbox before Beatlemania hit the United States with "I Want to Hold Your Hand". 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—to cover up the alleged fact that the lyrics were 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 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 started a 31-month investigation into the matter and concluded they were "unable to interpret any of the wording in the record." Ironically, however, drummer Lynn Easton later admitted that he yelled "Fuck" after fumbling a drumstick at 0:54 on the record.
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, it 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 debuted 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 Records had stopped promoting the Raiders version, as ordered by Mitch Miller.
By the time the Kingsmen version had achieved national popularity, the band had split. Two rival editions—one featuring lead singer Jack Ely, the other with Lynn Easton who held the rights to the band's name—were competing for live audiences across the country. A settlement was reached later in 1964 giving Easton the right to the Kingsmen name but requiring all future pressings of the original version of "Louie Louie" to display "Lead vocal by Jack Ely" on the label.
On November 9, 1998, after a protracted lawsuit that lasted five years and cost $1.3 million, the Kingsmen were awarded ownership of all their recordings released on Wand Records from Gusto Records, including "Louie Louie". They had not been paid royalties on the songs since the 1960s.
When Jack Ely died on April 28, 2015 his son reported that "... my father would say, 'We were initially just going to record the song as an instrumental, and at the last minute I decided I'd sing it.'" When it came time to do that, however, Ely discovered the sound engineer had raised the studio's only microphone several feet above his head. Then he placed Ely in the middle of his fellow musicians, all in an effort to create a better "live feel" for the recording. The result, Ely would say over the years, was that he had to stand on his toes, lean his head back and shout as loudly as he could just to be heard over the drums and guitars.
Paul Revere & the Raiders
Paul Revere & the Raiders also recorded a version of "Louie Louie", probably on April 13, 1963, in the same Portland studio as the Kingsmen. The recording was paid for and produced by KISN radio personality Roger Hart, who soon became personal manager for the band. Released on Hart's Sandē label, their version was more successful locally. Columbia Records issued the single nationally in June 1963 and it went to #1 in the West and Hawaii. The quick success of "Louie Louie" suddenly halted, however, and a few years later Paul Revere & the Raiders learned why: Columbia A&R man Mitch Miller, who did not like rock n' roll, had pulled the plug on their version.
Robert Lindahl, president and chief engineer of NWI and sound engineer on both the Kingsmen and Raiders recordings, noted that the Raiders version was 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 did.
Other 1960s versions
After the Kingsmen and Raiders versions, several other bands recorded the song:
"Louie Louie" was Motörhead's first single for Bronze Records in 1978, following their initial release on Chiswick Records in 1977. It was a relatively faithful cover of the song, with "Fast" Eddie Clarke's guitar emulating the Hohner Pianet electric piano riff. It was released as a 7" vinyl single and reached number 68 on the UK Singles Chart. The reverse cover carries the dog Latin motto "Nil Illegitimum Carborundum", which is humorously said to mean "Don't let the bastards grind you down". The song is released with "Tear Ya Down" and appears on the CD re-issues of Overkill and The Best of Motörhead compilation. On 25 October 1978 a pre-recording of the band playing this song was broadcast on the BBC show Top of the Pops.
- "Louie Louie" (Richard Berry)
- "Tear Ya Down" (Eddie Clarke, Ian Kilmister, Phil Taylor)
Other 1970s versions
The Hermosa Beach, California hardcore punk band Black Flag released a cover version of "Louie Louie" as a single in 1981 through Posh Boy Records. It was the band's first release with Dez Cadena as singer, replacing Ron Reyes who had left the group the previous year. Cadena would go on to sing on the Six Pack EP before switching to rhythm guitar and being replaced on vocals by Henry Rollins. Cadena improvised his own lyrics to "Louie Louie", such as "You know the pain that's in my heart / It just shows I'm not very smart / Who needs love when you've got a gun? / Who needs love to have any fun?" The single also included an early version of "Damaged I", which would be re-recorded with Rollins for the band's debut album, Damaged, later that year. Demo versions of both tracks, recorded with Cadena, were included on the 1982 compilation album Everything Went Black.
The front cover art shows the main verse of the lyrics to "Louie Louie" over a photograph by Edward Colver featuring Black Flag's third singer Dez Cadena.
Bryan Carroll of AllMusic gave the single four out of five stars, saying that "Of the more than 1,500 commitments of Richard Berry's 'Louie Louie' to wax ... Black Flag's volatile take on the song is incomparable. No strangers to controversy themselves, the band pummel the song with their trademark pre-Henry Rollins-era guitar sludge, while singer Dez Cadena spits out his nihilistic rewording of the most misunderstood lyrics in rock history." Both tracks from the single were included on the 1983 compilation album The First Four Years, and "Louie Louie" was also included on 1987's Wasted...Again. A live version of "Louie Louie", recorded by the band's 1985 lineup, was released on the live album Who's Got the 10½?, with Rollins improvising his own lyrics.
Other 1980s versions
Answer songs and sequels
"Louie Louie" compilations
In February 1964, an outraged parent wrote to 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 Kingsmen recording and, after four months of investigation, concluded that it could not be interpreted, that it was "unintelligible at any speed," and therefore the Bureau could not find that the recording was obscene. In September 1965, an FBI agent interviewed one member of the Kingsmen, who denied that there was any obscenity in the song. The FBI did not interview songwriter Richard Berry, nor did they consult the lyrics on file with the U.S. Copyright Office.
A history of the song and its notoriety was published in 1992 by Dave Marsh, but permission could not be obtained to publish the lyrics. Richard Berry told Esquire magazine in 1988 that the Kingsmen had sung the song exactly as written.
The lyrics controversy resurfaced briefly in 2005 when the superintendent of the school system in Benton Harbor, Michigan, refused to let the marching band at one of the schools play the song in a parade. She later relented.
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 1978–1979 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 despite the anachronism of the film taking place in 1962, a year before the Kingsmen recording (although this is mitigated by the fact that the Deltas were fans of at least one black R&B musician, and 1962 was five years after Richard Berry released his original version of the song, plus the song had been popular with local bands in the Northwest following Rockin' Robin Roberts' 1961 single). Aside from the Animal House appearance, the song appeared in many other films, typically in raucous and humorous contexts. An instrumental version played by the Rice University Marching Owl Band (MOB) is heard in the final scene of The Naked Gun (1988). (In the film, the University of Southern California Marching Band is seen trampling Ricardo Montalban's already-flattened character, although it is the MOB that is heard playing.)
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.
The Who were directed in their early recording career by the riff/rhythm of "Louie Louie", owing to the song's influence on the Kinks, who, like the Who, were produced by Shel Talmy — the Kinks on the Pye 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 Matthew on Saturday Club in May, Pete explained that "I Can't Explain" was released to "introduce the Who to the charts" and that they were now trying to create the sort of sound they achieved on stage at present — hence the new single they were about to sing live on Saturday Club, the feedback-driven, Mod-inspired "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere". (In 1979 "Louie Louie" would be featured on the soundtrack album to Quadrophenia.)
"Louie Louie" repeatedly figured in the musical lexicon of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention 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). Zappa has said that he fired guitarist Alice Stuart from the Mothers of Invention because she couldn't play "Louie Louie", although this comment was obviously intended as a joke. 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.
Ian Curtis of Joy Division can be heard saying "You should hear our version of 'Louie Louie', woah" at the end of the band's live cover of The Velvet Underground's Sister Ray on their Still album.
The song has been used in a few Simpsons episodes: "Homer Goes To College" over the end credits, "Kill the Alligator and Run" when Homer is in the boat, and "We're on the Road to D'ohwhere" when Lisa's orchestra are rehearsing and their instruments begin to rust.
Use in movies
In addition to the previously mentioned American Graffiti (1973), National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), Quadrophenia (1979), The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), Coupe de Ville (1988), Wayne's World 2 (1993), and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), other movies and documentaries featuring versions of "Louie Louie" include Tijuana Blue (1972), Heart Like A Wheel (1983), Nightmares (1983), Blood Simple (1984), The Cult: Live in Milan (1986), Survival Game (1987), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1987), Love at Stake (1988), Fright Night Part 2 (1989), Jennifer Eight (1992), Passed Away (1992), Dave (1992), A Simple Twist of Fate (1994), Mr. Holland's Opus (1995), Man of the House (1995), Down Periscope (1996), My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), Wild Things (1998), ABC – The Alphabetic Tribe (1998), Say It Isn't So (2001), La bande du drugstore (2002), 24 Hour Party People (2002), Old School (2003), Friday Night Lights (2004), Guy X (2005), This Is England (2006), Bobby (2006), Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), Lemmy (2010), Knight and Day (2010), Best Possible Taste: The Kenny Everett Story (2012), and Desert Dancer (2014).
The song was used in television commercials for Spaced Invaders (1990), but did not appear in the movie.
Washington State Song
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 at the state capitol that day for speeches, singalongs, and performances by the Wailers, the Kingsmen, and Paul Revere & 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. While the effort failed in the end, the song is still played, following "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch at all Seattle Mariners home games.
International Louie Louie Day
April 11 (Richard Berry's birthday) is celebrated as International Louie Louie Day and is listed by Chase's Calendar of Events, the National Special Events Registry, and other sources. This date was chosen as the most significant date for the observance of International Louie Louie Day from a list of "Louie Louie"-related dates occurring in April, including:
April 6, 1963 – The Kingsmen recorded the version that made “Louie Louie” famous/infamous.
April 13, 1963 – Paul Revere and the Raiders recorded their competing version in the same studio.
April 1, 1985 – First annual WMMR Louie Louie Parade in Philadelphia (cancelled in 1989 due to excessive rowdiness).
April 12, 1985 – "Louie Louie Day" proclaimed by the state of Washington.
April 14, 1985 – "Louie Louie Day" proclaimed by the mayor of Seattle.
April 2, 1986 – "Louie Louie Day" proclaimed by the state of Oregon.
April 10, 1998 – The Kingsmen won an historic legal case against Gusto Records/GML, regaining ownership and royalty rights to all their recordings.
Support for International Louie Louie Day and other "Louie Louie"-related observances is provided by the Louie Louie Advocacy and Music Appreciation Society (LLAMAS) and "Louie Louie" fans worldwide. Commemorations of International Louie Louie Day have included newspaper articles, magazine stories, and radio programs with discussions of the song's history and playlists of multiple "Louie Louie" versions. In 2011, KFJC celebrated International Louie Louie Day with a reprise of its 1983 "Maximum Louie Louie" event, featuring multiple "Louie Louie" versions, new music by Richard Berry and appearances by musicians, DJs, and celebrities with "Louie Louie" connections.
The City of Tacoma held a summer music and arts festival from 2003 to 2012 in July named LouieFest. The event began in 2003 as the "1000 Guitars Festival" and featured a group performance of "Louie Louie" open to anyone with a guitar. The event was renamed LouieFest in 2004. Members of the Wailers, Kingsmen, Raiders, Sonics and other groups with "Louie Louie" associations regularly made appearances. The grand finale each year was the "Celebration of 1000 Guitars" mass performance of "Louie Louie" on the main stage.
Louie Louie sculpture
A sculpture titled "Louie Louie, 2013" by Las Vegas-based artist Tim Bavington is displayed on the lobby wall of the newly renovated Edith Green - Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Oregon. The work is constructed of 80 colored glass and acrylic panels representing the waveforms of the song using Bavington's concept of sculpting sound waves.
Recognition and rankings
Summary of "Louie Louie" rankings and recognition in major publications and surveys.