The Kingsmen are a 1960s rock band from Portland, Oregon, United States. (Yes, they are still active, though the only one from the original line-up is Mike Mitchell). They are best known for their 1963 recording of "Louie Louie", which held the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts for six weeks. The single has become an enduring classic.
Richard Berry wrote the song in 1955. With his group The Pharaohs, he was also the first to record it, and it got some airplay in the west coast of the US when it was released in 1957 but only sold about 40,000 copies. While much of the song's notoriety comes from the indecipherable lyrics, in Berry's original version words are quite clear: the song is about a sailor who spends three days traveling to Jamaica to see his girl.
The Kingsmen used to play it in a club, when the bands manager decided to record it. The song was recorded on April 6, 1963 in a three-microphone recording studio. According to Jack Ely, the lead singer of the band by the time the song was recorded, in order to sound like a live performance, he was forced to lean back and sing to a microphone suspended from the ceiling. "It was more yelling than singing," Ely said, "'cause I was trying to be heard over all the instruments." In addition, he was wearing braces at the time of the performance, further compounding his infamously slurred words.
This might not be the convincing explanation because Paul Revere and The Raiders, also on the Northwest touring scene, recorded their version the day after The Kingsmen at the same studio. Their version was superior musically and their partly ad-libbed lyrics are clearly heard, but was just regional hit as it did not generate the publicity The Kingsmen did.
Ely sang the beginning of the third verse several bars too early, but realized his mistake and waited for the rest of the band to catch up; he can be heard yelling something in the background. Finally, in what was thought to be a warm-up, the song was recorded in its first and only take. The Kingsmen were not proud of the version, but their manager liked the rawness of their cover.
A weird detail about The Kingsmen version was that no one understood the words to the song. There was a 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, probably started by unidentified college students, who made up a series of obscene verses.
Sales of The Kingsmen’s 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, helping this song to become a national hit.
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, and Michigan was considering it too.
By late 1963 the song reached No. 2 on the Billboard Top 100 chart, 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.
The Kingsmen version attracted even the attention of the FBI because of alleged indecent lyrics. The loud mumbling of the singer moved the F.B.I. to investigate the song for obscenity.
“The lyrics are so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter,” one dad wrote to then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1964. He did attach the offending, unprintable, version. Typed separately.
The lyrics were, in fact, innocent, but Ely's baffling enunciation permitted teenage fans and concerned parents alike to imagine the worst.
A mother in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, Flint, Michigan branch wrote to Hoover himself on June 18, 1965, to report “without a doubt, someone had masterminded an ‘auditory illusion’” that produced obscenity when the 45 rpm single was slowed down to 33⅓. Could the “alarming rise in venereal disease, perversion, promiscuity and illegitimate births in the teen groups” be because of exposure to this pornography, she wondered.
In historical context, first, the FBI was in charge of investigating the transport of obscene material across state lines. Second, rock and roll was considered “a subversive movement” fomenting revolt and social instability.
Thus, the FBI’s bureaus had to investigate every complaint, even though the Tampa office on March 5, 1964, concluded, “All three government 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 rpm to 78 rpm.” An Indianapolis FBI investigation got a copy of the actual lyrics from Limax Music Inc. for its own investigation in 1964 (after the Florida one) and concluded they were nothing like the obscene ones people thought they heard. The FBI talked to a member of The Kingsmen in 1965 who verified the innocuous lyrics sent by Limax. The FBI tried several times to close the file and finally did in October 1966. One of the last documents is a letter from radio station KEEL in Shreveport, La. They did its own investigation to make sure they weren’t polluting the airwaves and minds of young listeners, the station told the FBI. “Louie, Louie” is not Shakespeare, admittedly the KEEL report, but is not obscene.” At all, the FBI spent two years investigating what vigilant parents insisted were absolutely filthy lyrics, producing a 119 pages long report investigating this song. After a lot of listening, lyrics could be “decrypted” and the investigation ended without prosecution. Ironically, the recording notably includes the drummer yelling "f**k!" after dropping his drumstick at the 0:54 mark. All of this attention only made the song more popular. In April 1966 "Louie Louie" was reissued and once again hit the music charts, reaching No. 65 on the Cashbox chart and No. 97 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Currently "Louie Louie" is accounted as the world's most recorded rock song with over 1,600 versions and counting, probably many of them better than the one recorded by The Kingsmen.