The story of the garage-band classic "Louie Louie"
In any discussion of garage-band classics, several titles invariably turn up, “Talk Talk” by The Music Machine, The Seeds‘ “Pushin’ Too hard”, The Blues Magoos‘ “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet”; each has its proponents, but one performance undoubtedly outstrips them as the seminal piece; The Kingmen‘s version of “Louie Louie”.
Originally cut in the mid-1950s by its composer Richard Berry, the song became a sizeable R&B hit before seemingly disappearing from contention for a while, its resurrection came via the grungy dance bands working out of America’s North-West coast, a region boasting a unique style of music centred on cities such as Portland and Seattle.
Bands like The Wailers, The Galaxies, The Frantics and The Sonics worked out a sound based on storming instrumentals, exaggerated Little Richard riffs, pounding rhythms and honking saxophones – something like “Louie Louie” was a natural for such treatment. However, The Kingsmen were not the first band from the area to try the song for size, even if their overnight ‘success’ was some six years in coming.
The mainstays of the early line-up were Jack Ely on guitar and vocals and a drummer, Lynn Easton. They met in Portland, Oregon while members of respective teenage combos, both of which were sponsored by local newspapers.
When the guitarist in Easton’s group, The Journal Juniors pulled out of a date, Lynn’s mother contacted Ely and asked him to stand in. This he did, and over an ensuing after-gig coke, the two youths made plans to work as a duo.
For six months they played PTA meetings and country club affairs before deciding to expand their number by adding a lead guitarist, Mike Mitchell, a school friend of Easton. In September1958, the trio then added bassist, Bob Nordby, poaching him from a rival band, and had decided that a permanent name was necessary.
Around the same time, another Portland group, The Kingsmen, had broken up and Lynn’s parents arranged with the old band’s leader for their son’s group to appropriate the name.
Over the next four years and into the early 1960s, The ‘new’ Kingsmen built up their reputation playing a mixture of R&B and Ventures-styled instrumentals. In 1962, they demoed a version of “Peter Gunn” in a local studio, with a handful of copies being pressed up on disc.
But their most decisive step was the arrival of a fifth member when organist Don Gallucci came in from yet another ‘rival’ band, Gentlemen Jim (Dunlop) and the Horsemen.
Residencies and more extensive touring followed, with The Kingsmen often playing double-headers alongside Northwest contemporaries such as Paul Revere and the Raiders, and it was during one such jaunt that they discovered the song that would catapult them into infamy.
Flicking through the selections in the Pipal Club’s jukebox, they came across “Louie Louie” as performed by The Wailers, the areas hottest attraction. They themselves were currently evolving out of their bar band / instrumental phase and into something with a rougher, raunchy edge.
They’d added a new member, Rockin’ Robin Roberts, who’d already recorded a version of “Louie Louie” on Etiquette Records, and brought it into his new group, who then proceeded to cut their blast at it on Liberty.
The Kingsmen, in turn, now quickly learned the song and featured it heavily, where it drew a positive response. In March 1963 they went into a Portland studio and cut their arrangement of it, reportedly shelling out a mammoth $44 in the process, then released it through Jerry Dennon’s local indie label, Jerden.
It was a minor regional hit, but The Kingsmen were actually beaten out by Paul Revere and the Raiders, who recorded the same song for Columbia the following day. Both versions, however, died soon afterwards.
In the meantime a ruccous had erupted within The Kingsmen’s ranks. Lynn Easton wanted to move out from behind the drums to play saxophone and sing, suggesting too that Jack should switch places.
When Ely objected, Easton said he had little choice and casually mentioned that the name, “The Kingsmen”, belonged solely to him, that when it was registered his parents had only put his name down on the forms.
According to Robert Dalley’s informative piece in Goldmine No. 57 which has helped provide much essential background information here, Ely and Bob Norby simply walked out, unable to accept this new situation, leaving Lynn, Mitchell and Gallucci behind.
It’s interesting to note, however, that one their second U.K. e.p., “Mojo Workout”, The Kingsmen’s bio credits Easton as the group’s sole founder, and claims that Mitchell and Gary Abbott (drums) were its earliest members. Don Gallucci and bassist Norm Sundholm are then noted as later additions.
Whatever the full story, Abbot and Sundholm, were certainly part of the next Kingsmen line-up. They arrived in time to see “Louie Louie” belatedly start its national profile when an R&B station across the U.S.A., in Boston, picked up on the disc.
They played it heavily, possibly thinking that the group performing it was black, other stations began to feature it and on 09/11/63, the single entered the ‘Billboard’ Hot 100, ultimately rising to No. 2.
By this time the Jerden deal had been picked up by Wand which in turn was distributed in Britain by Pye International. The new label then demanded an album and ‘The Kingsmen In Person’ duly although just how ‘live’ all the cuts were is debatable.
The version of “Louie Louie” on it is surely Jack Ely’s original with applause overdubbed to make it fit the context. Indeed, its felt that the ‘new’ group could never recapture the fire of that first take, and Jack would compound the argument by going out in direct competition to his erstwhile partners, fronting Jack Ely and the Kingsmen.
It took a court order to restrain him, one which finally took away his right to use his old name, but which also won him the right to be credited as vocalist on every subsequent “Louie Louie” re-release.
He then altered his own group’s name to Jack Ely and the Courtmen, and signed a deal with Bang out of which two singles appeared. Their debut, “Louie Louie ’66” (what else?) was backed by “David’s Mood”, another Northwest standard, originally cut by Dave Lewis, but also heavily featured by The Kingsmen.
“Ride Baby Ride”, however, showed his moving away from the immediate past, but the draft then put an end to Jack’s serious musical career, although he would retain something of an on-off interest throughout the 1970s.