The Kingsmen were just five unknown Portland, Ore., teenagers when they entered a studio in May 1963 to make an audition record so they could get jobs on a cruise ship. They chose to record ”Louie, Louie,” a ditty about a Jamaican sailor pining for his girl that had been a favorite in Northwest clubs.
Only 45 minutes later, the Kingsmen were on their way to rock glory. They had unwittingly unleashed perhaps the greatest party record ever produced — a rowdy, infectious, sloppy tune that’s as impossible to dislike as it is to understand. Even though the cruise bookers found the tune resistible — according to guitarist Mike Mitchell, they ”thought it was the worst piece of garbage they ever heard” — within five months the song had been picked up by tiny Wand Records. By the end of the year ”Louie, Louie” had hit No. 2 on the charts.
Part of the song’s enduring appeal is sheer mystery: No one has ever been able to figure out what singer Jack Ely is singing after the first two words. Most accounts claim he just garbled lyrics he couldn’t remember. Ely says he knew the words — he just had to scream them into a microphone suspended 12 feet over his head in the hole-in-the-wall studio. ”I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do perfect diction with your neck straight back,” says Ely, now 47, ”but it’s not possible.” Nonetheless, a belief that the lyrics sounded dirty if the record was played at slow speed kicked off a nationwide anti-”Louie” movement in 1964. Two FBI agents even paid a visit to Ely’s home. ”They said, ‘We’re here to talk about the obscene lyrics you put on Wand recording number 143,”’ he recalls. ”I sat down and wrote out the lyrics and told them to try singing with their necks back.”
Okay, but what exactly did he sing? Here are the words:
Chorus: Louie, Louie, me gotta go.
Louie, Louie, me gotta go.
First verse: Fine little girl she waits for me.
Me catch the ship across the sea.
I’ll sail the ship all alone.
I never think I’ll make it home.
May. 18, 1963
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was scaring the wits out of movie audiences. Book buyers were taking a trip with the top-selling nonfiction title, John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, and TV viewers were tuning in to the new hit, The Lucy Show. Jimmy Soul’s calypso-flavored ”If You Wanna Be Happy” was No. 1 on the pop music charts.