With Rev. Billy C. Wirtz off for the holidays, we looked through some of our favorites of his “Slipped Discs” columns from the year. This column first ran on May 2. We enjoyed looking back at it and thought you would, too.
“Me Gotta Go Now”
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about.
ME GOTTA GO NOW
OK, faithful readers:
Name this tune:
(Read it out loud)
Did ya get it?
How about if I told you that the progression goes I-IV-V minor-IV?
By now, I hope you’ve figured out that I am referring to a song written by Richard Berry and immortalized by a bunch of guys in Seattle, everybody grab your honey, it’s LOUIE LOUIE time!!!
First of all, after Richard Berry, there are numerous versions of the saga.
Here’s one of them:
Los Angeles, 1955 – A young black artist named Richard Berry was trying to compose a tune in the style of “Havana Moon” by Chuck Berry. He wrote some lyrics on a napkin between sets of a bar gig.
He ended up writing the song about a love-starved fellow sailing to Jamaica to meet his girlfriend.
Here are the words he scribbled down:
Louie Louie, me gotta go
Louie Louie, me gotta go
Fine little girl she waits for me
Me catch the ship for cross the sea
I sail the ship all alone
I never think I’ll make it home
Three nights and days me sail the sea
me think of girl constantly
on the ship I dream she there
I smell the rose in her hair
Me see Jamaica moon above
It won’t be long, me see my love
Me take her in my arms and then
I tell her I never leave again
Shortly thereafter, Berry needed money for an engagement ring and sold the rights to “Louie Louie”…for $750. That’s not a misprint.
1957 – “Louie Louie” by Richard Berry is released on Flip Records. Berry performs with an R&B revue at Eagles Auditorium in the Seattle area.
From here on, it gets really weird; I read about six different accounts, and this seems to be the majority opinion.
Tacoma, Washington – 1960: A white kid named Robin Roberts sings with various local bands.
His two favorite songs are “Rockin’ Robin” and a doo-wop obscurity, ”Louie Louie.” He records “Louie Louie” with The Wailers, a local group with the recent hit, “Tall Cool One.” They are frequent performers at The Spanish Castle, a club later immortalized in song by Jimi Hendrix.
Roberts’ version goes to #1 locally, but tanks on the national charts.
April 1963 – “Louie Louie” has become a regional standard played by all the bands. Two groups record versions of it in the same week.
The first version by Paul Revere and Raiders sells respectably, but they would find greater fame with a dozen other hits.
A group of teenagers known as The Kingsmen pony up $36 and record the song in one take. There are two microphones, one over the drums, and another one for the vocals and rest of the band. The words come out mumbled and virtually incomprehensible.
FACT: The original vocal was sung by Jack Ely, who quit the band two days later.
FACT: In the song, Ely makes a one glaring mistake, coming in too soon on the vocals after the guitar break, Lynn Easton covers it with a drum roll. It doesn’t matter; the mistake becomes part of the song, part of music history, and is included by The Kingsmen when they play it live.
FACT: At :54, Easton drops a stick and yells a clearly audible “F—ck,” in the background. (Go ahead, go listen, and then come back and finish the article).
The guys decide “Louie Louie” is a terrible recording and forget about it.
October, 1963 – A Boston D.J. plays “Louie Louie” declaring it the worst record of the week. His joke backfires and the song sells over 20,000 copies in a week. Wand Records buys the master from Jerden (Hell yes, it worth some serious cash), the original label in Seattle.
Jack Ely realizes his mistake, pleads with Lynn Easton to let him back in the band. “No way “ says Easton, and thus begins a series of The Kingsmen versus Jack Ely and The Kingsmen rivalries that will ultimately end up in multimillion dollar lawsuits.
Winter, 1963-64 – Rumors begin to fly that when played at 33 RPM the words describe a variety of sexual acts. School kids pass notes in class with the “secret lyrics.” “Louie Louie” sells two million copies and spends four months on the charts. It charts yet again in 1966.
The State of Indiana bans “Louie Louie.”
Radio stations refuse to play it.
My band, Thomas Tuff and The Soul Exhaustion, gets kicked out of Teen Club for playing it.
A senate investigation is launched; millions of dollars are spent, until finally, a year later the subcommittee confesses that it has been unable to discover any obscene lyrics. The “F” bomb at :54 goes unnoticed.
1965 – Yet another Seattle band, The Sonics, record a version of “Louie Louie.” Their version has a distinctly different feel, the progression being an edgy I-III-IV progression. The buzz-saw guitars and sneering vocals predate punk by almost fifteen years. Black Flag will record a cover of this version complete with spontaneous lyrics by Henry Rollins.
1978 – The movie Animal House begins spurs a resurgence in the song’s popularity.
1983 – Radio station KFJC in Los Altos Hills, California, plays over 600 versions in one weekend.
1995 – After years of legal wrangling, Richard Berry regains his rights to the song. He records an album featuring “Louie Louie,” “Have Love, Will Travel,” and “Yama-Yama, Pretty Mama,” for his good friend Johnny Otis. He buys an SUV and pays off his mom’s mortgage.
1997 – Richard Berry dies a rich and happy man. In the past two years he has collected more than two million dollars in royalties.
The Millennium – Richard Berry’s little song is now the most covered song, with somewhere around two thousand documented versions, in all of pop music.
In many respects, “Louie Louie” is the classic American story. From the B-side of a forgotten single to the floors of the U.S. Senate, from Jack Ely to J. Edgar Hoover, spur of the moment decisions made by teenagers, affecting the rest of their lives, and changing popular culture. The night before they recorded it, The Kingsmen played a ninety-minute version of it at a dance.
Dave Marsh wrote an entire book about it and due to legal hassles couldn’t print the lyrics.
When asked why he used a minor five chord instead of a major five, Ely admits it was a simple error.
If you were unaware of the :54 remark, don’t feel bad, I just found about this week.
I have recently gone into semi-retirement after thirty years on the road. In the world of itinerant musicians, there are certain annual events that help to make ends meet.
The Christmas season is always tough, people aren’t going out, too many private parties, and clubs traditionally book a light schedule.
At the end of the season however, there’s the New Year’s Eve gig. Every year I played one, I would of course, play “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight. Following that I’d pause and announce: “Ladies and Gentlemen, our national anthem.” Without missing a beat, I’d dive head first into “Louie Louie.” It killed ‘em, every time.
…And finally, according to LouieLouie.net, Richard Berry’s children divide a royalty check of around one hundred thousand dollars every year.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to William Wirth’s page on Facebook and look for the link.
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