Tuesday, May 21, 2024

“Louie Louie” and How the FBI Took Over a Year to Decide the Lyrics Were Indecipherable


In 1963 the Kingsmen released their version of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” — and hoo boy did people lose their mind over what they thought were dirty lyrics.

Letters were written, investigative task forces created, all because of this silly and indecipherable 2:48 of fun, recorded in a single take at a cost of $50.

Never once in my life have I understood any of it, but hey, it’s catchy and fun. 

Dirty? Well, some people thought so, and one guy wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy about it. So of course the FBI spent 15 months digging into it:

Over the course of the next two years, the FBI gathered many versions of the putative lyrics to Louie Louie. They interviewed the man who wrote the song and officials of the record label that released the Kingsmen’s smash-hit single. They turned the record over to the audio experts in the FBI laboratory, who played and re-played “Louie Louie” at 78 rpm, 45 rpm, 33 1/3 rpm and even slower speeds in an effort to determine whether it was pornographic and, therefore, whether its sale was a violation of the federal Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material law.

Finally to everyone’s relief on May 17, 1965 they announced their dramatic conclusion: the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed”.

Good to know.

The original by Richard Berry was recorded in 1957 in a totally different tempo and style with a Carribean, almost “ska” style:

I like his version a lot better.

The story behind his songwriter royalties is pretty incredible:

The song has been recorded over 1,000 times. However, Berry received little financial reward for its success for many years, having sold the copyright for $750 in 1959 to pay for his wedding. Berry said in 1993 "Everybody sold their songs in those days. I never was bitter with the record companies. They provided a vehicle for five young black dudes to make a record."

But then 30 years after he wrote it …

In the mid-1980s, Berry was living on welfare at his mother's house in South Central Los Angeles. Drinks company California Cooler wanted to use "Louie Louie" in a commercial, but discovered it needed Berry's signature to use the song. The company asked the Artists Rights Society to locate him, and a lawyer visited Berry. The lawyer mentioned the possibility of Berry's taking action to gain the rights to his song. The publishers settled out of court, making Berry a millionaire.

The Professor of Rock weighs in: