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This was written by an R&B singer named Richard Berry in 1955. With his group The Pharaohs, he was also the first to record it, and it got some airplay in some cities in the Western US when it was released in 1957. Various garage bands heard it and started covering the song, until it became a phenomena with the Kingsmen's 1964 version. 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.
Dwight Rounds, author of The Year The Music Died, 1964-1972
, writes: "The words to Louie, Louie are almost impossible to understand, and are rumored to be obscene. No question that this added significantly to the sales of the single. There was probably a leak somewhere that the lyrics were obscene; otherwise no one would have realized it. This was the most ingenious marketing scheme ever. The FBI tried to track down Richard Berry, The Kingsmen, and various record company executives. They were never able to determine the actual lyrics used. To this day, the Kingsmen insist they said nothing lewd, despite the obvious mistake at the end of the instrumental, where Jack Ely started to sing the last verse one bar too soon, and can be heard yelling something in the background. Ely also said that he sung far away from the microphone, which caused the fuzzy sound, and that the notoriety was initiated by the record company. The words sound much more like the official version seen below, especially the word "rose" instead of "bone." The lyrics rumor was a sham. The official lyrics are in plain print, and one of the many alternative versions are in ().
Chorus: "Louie, Louie, oh no. Me gotta go. Aye-yi-yi, I said. Louie Louie, oh baby. Me gotta go."
"Fine little girl waits for me. Catch a ship across the sea. Sail that ship about, all alone. Never know if I make it home.
"Three nights and days, I sail the sea." (Every night and day, I play with my thing.) "Think of girl, constantly." (I f--k you girl, oh, all the way.) "Oh that ship, I dream she's there. (On my bed, I'll lay her there.) "I smell the rose in her hair." (I feel my bone, ah, in her hair.)
"See Jamaica, the moon above." (Hey lovemaker, now hold my thing.) "It won't be long, me see my love." (It won't take long, so leave it alone.) "Take her in my arms again." (Hey, senorita, I'm hot as hell.) "Tell her I'll never leave again." (I told her I'd never lay her again.)
Many bands in the Northwest US played this at their concerts. The Kingsmen lifted their version from The Wailers, a Seattle band who missed out on the song's success.
This song was prominently featured in the film Animal House, starring John Belushi, despite the fact that it wasn't actually recorded until almost two years after the period of time in which the movie is set (1962). (thanks, Sam - Lincoln, NE)
This cost $50 to record. The Kingsmen went to the studio after a radio station executive in Portland saw them perform it live and suggested they record it.
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, but was just regional hit as they could not generate the publicity The Kingsmen did.
This was the only Kingsmen song with lead vocals by Jack Ely. Before this became a hit, he quit when band leader Lynn Easton assumed vocals and ordered Ely to drums. When this became a hit, Easton would lip-sync to Ely's vocals on TV performances.
Ely tried to capitalize on the success of this by releasing similar songs on his own, including "Louie Louie 66," "Love That Louie," and "Louie Go Home."
This became a national hit when a disc jockey in Boston played it and declared that it was the worst song he ever heard.
Indiana governor Matthew Welsh was particularly offended by this song. He declared it "Pornographic" in 1964 and asked the Indiana Broadcasters Association to ban it.
According to lead singer Jack Ely, the studio had a 19-foot ceiling with a microphone suspended from it. Ely claims that was the cause of the "garbled" lyrics, but Paul Revere and the Raiders recorded their version of "Louie Louie" in the same studio the day after the Kingsmen's session, and their partly ad-libbed lyrics are clearly heard. (thanks, Brad Wind - Miami, FL)
On August 24, 2003, 754 guitarists played this at "Louie Fest" in Tacoma, Washington. The event was held to raise money for music programs. Dick Peterson from The Kingsmen was one of the guitarists.
The "See" in the lyrics "See Jamaica" comes in one line too early and is repeated.
This was used in the movie Down Periscope with Kelsey Grammer. As a submarine captain in a series of war games, Grammer and his crew sing this song loudly to confuse their pursuer's radar into thinking that they were a fishing trawler full of drunk fishermen. (thanks, Brandon - Peoria, IL)
Iggy Pop recorded a version with new lyrics for his 1993 album American Caesar. His band The Stooges would often play the song and change the words to the supposedly offensive lyrics. This version of the song was the last one they played at their February 9, 1974 show at the Michigan Palace, which would be their last until a reunion in 2003. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
According to Kenny Vance, who was the musical director on Animal House
, John Belushi sang in a garage band that used to perform this song at fraternities. Belushi would sing his version of the dirty lyrics, which he did in the studio while recording his vocals for the movie. Sadly, the tape of Belushi singing his dirty version of the song was lost in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy wiped out Kenny's home in Queens. (Read more in our interview with Kenny Vance
In the 1990 movie Coupe de Ville, Patrick Dempsey, Arye Gross and Daniel Stern star as brothers who have an argument over the meaning of this song. They debate if it is about lovemaking, or if it is a sea shanty. (thanks, Gordon - Jacksonville, FL)
In 1966, The Sandpipers took this song to #30 in the US. Another notable cover: the West Coast Punk band Black Flag recorded this in 1981 and released it on their album The First Four Years. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
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