Gary James' Interview With Dick Peterson of
The Kingsmen

In 1963, The Kingsmen were playing local teenage nightclubs and highschool proms in Portland, Oregon. A local DJ liked what he heard and asked the group to make a demo. One hour and $40 later, the record "Louie Louie" was sent to Boston and a disc jockey in the area began playing it. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Kingsmen were catapulted into overnight stardom. The next 5 years found the band on the road with The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers, The Zombies, Peter and Gordon and Paul Revere and The Raiders. They also appeared on such national TV shows as Shindig, Hullabaloo, American Bandstand and Where The Action Is. The Kingsmen went on to record such hits as "Money", "Little Latin Lupe Lu", "Long Tall Texan" and "Jolly Green Giant". Their music was also featured in the movie "Animal House".

It's worth noting that The Kingsmen's version of "Louie Louie" has sold more than 12 million copies, and the 1,000 or so cover versions have sold as many as 300 million records.

We spoke with original Kingsmen member Dick Peterson.

Q - You guys actually performed on a cruise ship. How weird is that? When you launched into "Louie Louie", that ship must have been literally been rockin'.

A - Well, it was a pretty crazy time that's for sure.

Q - Was that the group's first time on a cruise ship?

A - No. We've done cruise ships before. It's a favourite M.O. of these radio stations to create, oh, sort of a "week with the stars" cruises. You play one concert for you and your family and get a free cruise and then you get to hang out with all the people on board the ship. They're really fun.

Q - Before there was The Kingsmen with Dick Peterson, there was The Kingsmen in 1959, with Mike Mitchell.

A - Mike Mitchell is still with the group.

Q - Were there several other members of the group that changed before you joined?

A - Well, yes. The Kingsmen started out as a folk-group, with acoustic guitars and stand-up bass. They were singing things by The Kingston Trio, The Limelighters and stuff like that. That's before they turned to rock 'n roll.

Q - So, what happened to the guys in the 1959 version of The Kingsmen?

A - Well, Lynn, who was also in that band, was with the group for about 3 1/2 or 4 years once we had some hit records. And then the other fellas just sort of drifted off, got drafted into the army and went off into their lives. Groups change personnel. As the group evolved into a rock 'n roll band, things just turned out differently.

Q - Are there any of the guys from that 1959 version of The Kingsmen still in music?

A - I don't believe any of them are.

Q - According to the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, Mike Mitchell formed another Kingsmen group and signed a contract with Capitol Records in 1973, but nothing came of it. Is that accurate?

A - Well, sort of. Rolling Stone has this guy that works for them, name of Dave Marsh. Dave considers himself an expert on "Louie Louie" and The Kingsmen. The trouble is, a lot of the stuff he gets, he's either made up or he's read in publications. The Kingsmen wasn't a group made up by Mitchell in the 70s. What happened is, we were touring since 1964. We had "Louie Louie", "Jolly Green Giant", "Money", and "Little Latin Lupe Lu" and quite a few other records that were charted. We were doing really well. When the psychedelic music came in, there wasn't the call for The Kingsmen and we weren't being played on the radio. We sort of stayed in the Northwest and played locally. We were playing rock 'n roll...traditional rock 'n roll, 50s and 60s. Really some heavy hitting rock 'n roll. The band had taken on different members. Norm, our original bass player had quite a successful amplifier company, Japanese-Sunn equipment Co. The company was started for The Kingsmen back in 1964 to hold what we were doing. We were a very loud rock 'n roll band. So, Norm's business was taking off. He decided since The Kingsmen were slowing down, he as gonna give full time to that, so he left and we got a different bass player. Barry was in Vietnam for 3 years, so, he came back and re-joined the band. Bands change, but, the band didn't stop. We recorded something that we thought was pretty cool and sent it down to Capitol Records. They liked it and signed the group. They put the record out and nothing happened with it, and that's kind of what happened.

Q - What was going on in Portland, Oregon in the early 1960s as far as rock 'n roll music goes. Was it a healthy music scene out there?

A - Incredible. We had several groups that ended up making it from that area. Paul Revere and The Raiders, The Kingsmen, The Wailers. They had a record called "The Tall Cool One". They were the first group to kind of come out of the Northwest in rock 'n roll. Then, The Ventures were also from here. The communication with the rest of the country wasn't what it is today. Air travel wasn't as easy. You didn't have the internet. We were our own little community up here. We were separated from the East by the Rocky Mountains and there's a terrific span of semi-populated area between us and California. So, we had our own music scene going. We were pretty much of a rhythm and blues influenced rock 'n roll kind of territory. It was really fun. You had garage bands on almost every corner. You had Battle of the Bands up here when you put 40 bands in a coliseum and have a concert all day long. It just was really fun. We were all friends. Everybody just had a great time.

Q - Jerry Dennon was the record producer for "Louie Louie". Was he your manager as well?

A - No, he wasn't. And actually, he didn't produce "Louie Louie". Jerry Dennon came in after the fact. He owned a record production company and a local disc jockey here from KISN radio took the record to him to see if he wouldn't put it out on his record label. He put it out on his label. He then put his label as being the producer on the record.

Q - Who broke "Louie Louie" for The Kingsmen?

A - Actually, literally on a national level, I would have to say Arnie 'Woo Woo' Ginsberg in Boston. He put us on his show in Boston and has a huge following on the East coast. He put us on as the worst record. He had a contest every night - rate a record. If you won the audience vote as the worst record, you stayed on and took on the next worst record. And "Louie Louie" just won over and over to the point where it started becoming popular. He's the one who got the record on to Scepter / Wand. Jerry Denno sent him a copy of the record and so he started playing it. Jerry also sent a copy of the record to Scepter / Wand. Scepter / Wand didn't respond, but, when Arnie Ginsberg's radio show started making it a popular record, he called the people at Scepter and said, "When is it coming out? A lot of people want to buy this thing." It was being heard all up and down the East coast. Some kids in Alabama actually got his video broadcast and those kids went home to Indiana for the Christmas vacation in 1963. They got the record to their parents and said it had dirty lyrics because you couldn't understand what the singer was saying. And, it was banned in Indiana and that's what made the U.P. and the A.P. press services in the United States. They ended up banning it in several other states and the F.B.I. did a big investigation about it and once it was banned, that thing just took off like wildfire.

Q - How did life change for you guys when "Louie Louie" became a hit?

A - Well, we went from being kids in highschool and college, to kids driving Jaguars and Ferraris, touring the country playing rock 'n roll, doing what any young kid would love to do.

Q - "Louie Louie" must have sold a lot of records.

A - It sold a ton. It's one of the biggest records of all time. It has become an icon of the 60s.

Q - You followed "Louie Louie" with "Money"?

A - Yes

Q - How far up the chart did that go?

A - You know, I'm not sure. It was Top Ten.* It did really well for us. It's still a really popular song. We play to an audience of all ages. Fortunately for us, we were on the tail end of the oldies growth trend, so our records still make the 50s and 60s stations and they still play them quite a lot. We're working now more than ever. It's kind of crazy. We've become classic rock 'n roll artists.

Q - In 1965, you were actually recognized as the number one touring band in the US.

A - Yes.

Q - How were you travelling in those days? By bus? Station wagon? Plane?

A - Well, the first couple of tours we did, we did with the station wagon and the trailer. In the Summer of '64, we went on the road with The Beach Boys for the entire Summer and they were travelling by Greyhound bus. There were 21 of us in the bus. So, after that tour, we bought a Greyhound bus and converted it into a facility for the seven of us, 5 band members and 2 road crew. We took all the seats out and made it a big touring bus. We stayed on the road literally for 5 years. We took 13 days off every year for Christmas.

Q - You performed with The Rolling Stones.

A - Yeah, sure have. We did a television show called the Hullabaloo. It was the first time we met the Stones. They were just kids too. We had a great time. They were terrific guys. Since then, we've done a couple of things with them and I've gotten to a few of their shows and said Hi. That kind of stuff. They were great guys.

Q - Again, I want to ask you, did The Kingsmen retire in 1968, as Rolling Stone reported in the Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll?

A - We did not retire in '68. That whole book that he (Dave Marsh) did on "Louie Louie", can you imagine writing a book and not interviewing any of the Kingsmen? He did not interview one us! Not one. And when we called his publisher and said, 'how can you come out with stuff like this, because we read the book , that has no basis in fact? I though this guy was a legitimate author. His report was, "I read a bunch of old newspaper articles and that's how I quoted them." Now come on! This guy is Rolling Stone magazine and is gonna trust a newspaper article quote to base a book on? I don't think so. I'm really disappointed.

Q - Maybe it was a quick way to make some money.

A - It was a quick way to make some money and he hopped on some sort of bandwagon.

Q - You know, I have that book and I've never read it.

A - Well, there are some things in there that are true, I will tell you that. However, he got the story of the Wailers wrong. He interviewed somebody that had their own agenda.

Q - What's the story on "Louie Louie" anyway?

A - This was a song that was written back in the 50s. Richard Berry had a calypso vocal group. Richard wrote that song and put it out. It did nothing. There was a kid in The Wailers named Rockin' Rob Roberts who went on vacation in California and he's the one who came up and taught it to The Wailers and The Wailers were the ones performing it. They were the ones who put it out in the Northwest and it did really well for them. We just started playing it 'cause the kids liked it. We only recorded the record to get a job on a cruise line because we thought it was one of the better things that the band did. It was an audition tape, for crying out loud.

Q - To get a job on a cruise line in '65?

A - In '63. Yes. Lynn's dad had a connection with a travel agency and they wanted a demo tape. You go out and work the cruise line and you'll just be a band on a boat. But, they didn't like the tape. Ken Chase at KISN radio started playing our version of "Louie Louie" behind the ads for the dances we had every week. And the kids started calling up and saying "Hey, what's that jingle music you're playing back there?" He's the one who put it out here in Portland and he's the one who took it to Jerry Dennon.

Q - "Louie Louie" was just a harmless record, wasn't it?

A - Just a bunch of boys having a party, letting it all go. The F.B.I. made a big deal out of something that, those days...well, listen to the lyrics on records today! We were tame. We were nothing. You couldn't even understand what was being said. Nowadays they're talking about killing women on records. Give me a break!

Q - You couldn't understand what Mick Jagger was singing a lot of times.

A - So, you can't understand what they're saying! Rock 'n roll creates a feeling with lyrics. Some of it with just a rhythm. Some of it with a combination of both. Magic happens on records. Whatever makes it happen - it just happens! Sometimes we get to the point where we're being so over analytical that we cause those things to happen. You ban a record by Run DMC and it makes it number one when it would have died. "Louie Louie" probably would have died a harmless death had they not banned it. Every word in the entire world that you could think of will fit in "Louie Louie", one way or another. You could sing "White Christmas" to that baby and it would work.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

* "Money" by the Kingsmen reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April, 1964.