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Music Tastes Change, But One Song Remains a Classic


This is the story of what may be the perfect, or at least still most popular, party song, almost half a century after it was written.

Americans of all ages can hear the first notes of one of the greatest songs in rock 'n' roll history and tell you in a flash that it's "Louie Louie," made famous 46 years ago by a group called the Kingsmen.

"Louie Lou-EYE, oh no / Me gotta go," the song begins.

"Aye-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi."

"Louie Louie" is about a Jamaican sailor talking to a bartender named Louie about the sailor's girl back home. It was written in 1955 by rhythm-and-blues singer Richard Berry. He sang it slowly and smoothly - and almost nobody paid attention to it. Only when the Kingsmen recorded an upbeat version in 1963 in Portland, Oregon, did it become a hit.

The Kingsmen's lead singer was Jack Ely, who, for some reason, pronounced the bartender's name as "Louie, Lou-EYE."

And when Ely went on to mumble most of the words, an underground legend grew up around the song. Parents - and a lot of kids - were sure there was some sexual reference in there. The governor of the state of Indiana even called "Louie Louie" pornographic. He got the U.S. Postal Service, the FBI and the federal agency that regulates broadcasting to investigate.

A few radio stations banned the song, but thanks to Ely's sloppy singing, no one was ever able to positively identify anything off-color in the lyrics. The song became the Kingsmen's biggest hit, but it cost Jack Ely his job for mangling the lyrics. And "Louie Louie" became a party classic. In fact, a lot of people know the song the way they, too, mumbled it as they were dancing, sometimes after a few too many drinks!

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.


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