He lacked name recognition, but Jack Ely’s voice, at least, remains readily identifiable on one of the most significant songs in rock ‘n’ roll history. The words he sang with it, of course, is another matter entirely.
Ely, who died yesterday at 71, was lead singer of The Kingsmen on “Louie, Louie,” the deceptively simple and much-covered 1963 garage rock classic that was the focus of a vain FBI investigation about what was thought to be obscene lyrics.
“Everybody says the same thing: ‘dirty lyrics,'” says Robert Kenison, who as Troy Charmell was a member of the legendary 1970s Midwest rock ‘n’ roll show band Dr. Bop & The Headliners. “But everybody played it in the Midwest–it was required!–and nobody knew how to sing it because no one could hear what the words were! So everybody mumbled to sound like the record: Except for ‘we gotta go,’ it was all,garbled. You just kind of said what you thought they were saying without getting any more lewd than they pretended to be!”
Kenison further notes that “chordwise, they played a minor chord on the ‘5’ chord. Usually there are three chords on rock ‘n’ roll songs, and they’re all major. But The Kingsmen played minor on the ‘5,’ which was kind of cool and groundbreaking. They were actually a very good band, and very nice and unassuming guys.”
Kenison was in his first rock ‘n’ roll band in the early ’60s, Shane Todd & The Novells, who opened a package show at Madison, Wisconsin’s Capitol Theater starring The Kingsmen, the Beach Boys and Brian Hyland, among other artists.
“They weren’t at all full of themselves, and the people loved their act,”says Kenison, singling out guitarist Mike Mitchell’s play. “They hit on something and it worked for them.”
As simple as the song is, the history of The Kingsmen’s big hit is somewhat complicated. Originally an R&B song written by Richard Berry in 1955 about a Jamaican sailor returning home–and recorded by him the following year–it was recorded again and was a regional hit in 1961 for Rockin’ Robin Roberts, backed by Tacoma, Wash. garage rock band The Wailers. It became a popular cover tune for Portland’s Kingsmen, who played it once for an entire 45-minute set.
Ely and The Kingsmen recorded it under less than optimal studio conditions–he had to stand on his toes to sing into a microphone hung from the ceiling–and the recording is famously marked by his mistaken vocal start and then restart just after the lead guitar break. But the rest is history, though some have maintained that fellow Portland band Paul Revere & The Raiders recorded it first.
“To settle it once and for all: Jack Ely/The Kingsmen recorded Louie Louie 3 days BEFORE the Raiders,” Raiders lead singer Mark Lindsay tweeted yesterday. “And you had the grittier version, Jack.”
Despite the fact that “Louie Louie” was banned on many radio stations due to the presumed dirty lyrics, it appears on numerous lists of the most important songs in rock ‘n’ roll history, and is rightly a Grammy Hall of Fame Award recipient.
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