Louie Louie is a great classic oldie. But did you know it had a bit of controversy surrounding it?
It’s difficult to believe this song was once deemed offensive enough to launch an investigation by the FBI.
But the 1960s were a much different time. These days, songs that are allowed on the airwaves are a far cry from what was permissible back then.
Today, we’re digging in to find out how this song caught the federal government’s attention.
About the Song Louie Louie
Louie Louie was written and recorded by the musician Richard Berry in 1955. While Berry performed with a few bands in the 1950s, he’s best known for this hit single.
The inspiration for the song came from a rhythm & blues rendition of the Latin tune El Loco Cha Cha. Berry used the music from the song as a base and began writing his own lyrics.
His opening lyrics are likely the most familiar to the majority of people:
Louie, Louie, oh, oh, me gotta go Louie, Louie, oh, oh, me gotta go
From there, Berry begins to describe the story of a Jamaican sailor making his way across the ocean back home to be with his girl.
Fine little girl she waits for me Me catch the ship for cross the sea Me sail the ship all alone Me never think me make it home Three nights and days me sail the sea Me think of girl constantly On the ship I dream she there Me smell the rose in her hair
Berry released Louie Louie in 1957 with his band, The Pharaohs, providing backing vocals. Radio stations in the Western US played this R&B number, which became a hit regionally.
From R&B to Rock ‘n Roll
It wasn’t until 1963, when the band The Kingsmen recorded their rock and roll version, that it gained nationwide notoriety. The Kingsmen were from Portland, Oregon, and had a much heavier sound than the soulful Richard Berry.
They took Berry’s version, turned it into more of a raucous number, and sang it in a way that made the words somewhat indecipherable.
The Kingsmen performed Louie Louie at gigs around Portland. One of these performances caught the ear of a local radio station executive, who urged the band to record the song.
Their May 1963 version of Louie Louie wasn’t immediately recognized as a hit. In October of that year, the biggest DJ in Boston, Massachusetts, played the song and called it the “worst record of the week.”
Oddly enough, that’s all it took for people to start taking notice of The Kingsmen’s version of Louie Louie. The song shot to the top of the Billboard music chart.
Was Louie Louie Banned?
Yes, Indiana banned Louie Louie from being played on airwaves throughout the state in 1964. All because two teenagers wrote a letter to Governor Matthew Welsh alerting him to obscene lyrics in a rock-n-roll song they heard on the radio.
Governor Welsh took immediate action. He listened to the song in question, at varying speeds on a record player, to identify the offensive lyrics. Convinced there was something naughty within the lyrics, he contacted the Federal Communications Commission. Welsh then called the Indiana Broadcasters Association and asked to ban Louie Louie on all state radio stations.
After a two-year investigation, the FBI determined the lyrics didn’t contain anything worthy of a ban. None of the words were deemed offensive.
What Really Happened
Due to the incoherent lyrics in The Kingsmen’s version, an unidentified college student decided to spread their version of the lyrics. The student changed the words, “Think of girl, constantly,” to ” I f–k you girl, oh, all the way.”
The fabricated lyrics made the rounds among college and high school students. The two teens who contacted the governor felt others needed to know about this offensive song.
Fifty-five years after the teens wrote that letter to the governor, a local Indiana paper, the IndyStar, was able to identify who they were and contacted them. Their anonymity remained in place, so no one would ever know exactly who was behind the banning of Louie Louie.
In an interview with the paper, the then-teen girl admitted to liking the song when she first heard it. She said, “The beat and everything was beautiful. But you couldn’t understand the words, they were all garbled.”
She continued, “One of the kids in my class was dating someone at Purdue, and he somehow got a hold of what he said were the words. Some of them weren’t very nice.”
Even without the help of the Internet and social media back then, the rumored lyrics spread like wildfire. And without being able to research whether they were true, teens just took the word of their friends as truth.
How Many Louie Louie Versions Are There?
There are over 2,000 versions of Louie Louie, making it one of the most covered rock songs of all time! Almost every popular genre of music has multiple renditions of the tune. From reggae to jazz to punk covers, there’s a version out there to suit every musical taste.
In 1972, Led Zeppelin performed Louie Louie during a show in Los Angeles. While there are many excellent versions of the song to be had, this one stands out among fans of classic oldies as one of the best.
It might seem logical for rock bands to cover the song, but some might be surprised how many versions were done by punk rockers. The Clash, Iggy Pop, and Black Flag recorded the song for their albums.
Is There Really a Louie Louie Day?
Yes! There truly is an International Louie Louie Day. It falls on April 11, which happens to be Richard Berry’s birthday. Fans of the song worldwide make up a group known as Louie Louie Advocacy and Music Appreciation Society (LLAMAS,) formed in 2007.
According to the LouieLouie.net website, part of the group’s mission is to foster awareness of Louie Louie’s unique role in the history of popular music.
Between 2003 and 2012, Tacoma, Washington, held a Louie Louie Fest. Members of The Kingsmen, and other groups known to have covered the internationally acclaimed song, were regular guests.
And in Portland, Oregon, you can view a sculpture titled Louie Louie 2013. It’s in the lobby of the Wendell Wyatt Federal Building.
Humble Beginnings to Decades of Influence
Now you know the story behind Louie Louie. Even we were surprised to learn some facts behind this great oldie. We might not join the LLAMAS, but we certainly appreciate the impact Richard Berry and his song have had on the music world.
This April 11, why not plan your day listening to some of the many cover versions of Louie Louie?