The Kingsmen were formed in Portland, Oregon in 1957, with an original line-up that included Jack Ely (lead singer and guitar), Lynn Easton (drums), Mike Mitchell (lead guitar), Bob Nordby (bass), and Don Gallucci (piano). As teenagers, they played at school dances, supermarket promotions, teen clubs, dance halls, national guard armories, fashion shows and private parties. Like many fledgling bands of the day, they copied what they heard on the radio and eventually became one of the most popular bands in the Portland area. One of they tunes that Jack Ely taught to the rest of the group was "Louie Louie", which had been a regional hit in the Seattle-Tacoma area. When it became one of their most popular live numbers, The Kingsmen decided to record their own version at Portland's Northwest Recorders studio. The cost of the session would be $36.
The circumstances regarding the actual recording of "Louie, Louie" have been a point of much discussion and controversy. The quality of the recording studio, the equipment involved and the placement of microphones have been repeatedly debated. Below, you will find two different versions of the events that took place. The first is by The Kingsmen's lead singer, Jack Ely. The second is from Cindy Lindahl, daughter of recording engineer, Robert Lindahl. We'll leave it up to the reader to decide which version to believe.
The following paragraph was provided to ClassicBands.com by Jack Ely.
"The studio was a good enough one, but had been primarily used for radio commercials, voice overs and movie sound track enhancements, but not many live bands. Also, during the recording of "Louie Louie" and "Haunted Castle" (the B side), (engineer, Robert) Lindahl was locked out of the sound booth and Ken Chase, aka Mike Korgan was at the controls and actually produced and engineered the session. Mr. Chase directed us to set up our amplifiers and the drums in a circle. I stood in the middle of the circle and sang or rather almost yelled up at a boom mic that was suspended about four or five feet above my head. There were other mics on the amplifiers and one on the bass drum and one near the snare drum under the symbols, but they were used for definition. Basically the whole thing was recorded on the one overhead mic in order to capture that “live sound” Mr. Chase said we sounded like we did at his teen club. During the guitar solo, the mic on Mike's amp was turned up slightly for definition is what Mr. Chase said. He also said he was delighted with the sound he got."
Another version of the events surrounding the recording of "Louie, Louie" was sent to ClassicBands.com by Robert Lindahl's daughter, Cindy.
"Despite rumors to the contrary, the studio they used was neither primitive nor amateurish, but was outfitted with the latest equipment of its day and staffed by competent, experienced professionals. An urban legend has existed for years, that, Jack Ely sang the lyrics into an overhead boom mike suspended ten feet in the air. The truth is that the "hollow" sound of the recording can be directly attributed to the band itself. A short time later, Paul Revere and the Raiders recorded "Louie, Louie" at the same studio with the same engineer, Robert Lindahl, creating a much fuller sound."
Jerry Dennon, a record producer in Seattle, pressed a thousand copies on his regional label, Jerden. A few Northwest music fans were already familiar with "Louie" as released by its writer, Richard Berry (1956) and The Wailers (1961). Paul Revere And The Raiders also recorded it the week after The Kingsmen did and both versions fought it out on local radio for a few months. Jerry Dennon, who worked for a record distributor at the time, sent the Kingsmen's version to the East Coast, along with that week's samples, where a couple of Boston stations played it, generating a huge response from listeners. Jerry Dennon entered into an agreement with New York's Wand label for immediate mass pressing and distribution. Wand worked the record effectively and "Louie" rapidly broke out in several markets, climbing the charts. In 1963, before the record started to break nationally, friction caused the break-up of the original line-up. Lynn Easton copyrighted the group's name, informing the other members that he had fired Jack Ely and that he was now sole owner of the Kingsmen name and its new lead singer. Jack Ely went on to form his own version of The Kingsmen, touring at the same time as Easton who was lip-synching the record whenever possible. The record itself reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Cashbox best sellers chart.
Much of the record sales can be attributed to a controversy regarding the lyrics. The record was banned from sales and air play in Indiana, which of course stimulated even more interest; so much so that Wand greatly increased their pressing efforts. Investigated by the FCC and many radio stations, the song was rumored to have obscene lyrics sung in it. To this day, The Kingsmen still say they said nothing lewd, despite the obvious mistake at the end of the instrumental where Jack Ely started to sing the last verse one bar too soon.
Only drummer Lynn Easton and guitarist Mike Mitchell were left from the original line-up, but since they were the ones with the recording contract, they were able to score more hit records in 1964 with their unique versions of "Money" (#16) and "Little Latin Lupe Lu" (#46). They also became a successful touring band in the United States. In 1965, during a series of one-nighters, they set fifty-six consecutive attendance records in colleges, ballrooms, arenas, state fairs and community dances. Many promoters used The Kingsmen as a gimmick to repel the British Invasion (a joke to the band, as they loved that music). They were featured on the top TV music shows including Shindig, Hullabaloo, American Bandstand, Where The Action Is and in the beach party movie, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. They also scored a #4 hit with a song that nearly got them sued over the use of a brand name, "The Jolly Green Giant", in 1965. The band continued to release new material with "The Climb" reaching #65, "Annie Fanny" getting to #47 and "(You Got) The Gamma Goochee" stalling at #128. In 1966 they reached #77 with with "Killer Joe" and the following year made the Billboard chart for the last time when "Bo Diddley Bach" made it to #128.
With two breaks (during the Psychedelic and Disco eras) and several personnel changes along the way, The Kingsmen performed at concerts, corporate events, beach parties, and "Louie Louie" parades throughout North America. Three of The Kingsmen, Mike Mitchell, Dick Peterson and Barry Curtis toured for years, while Ely languished in relative obscurity and Gallucci formed Don And The Goodtimes. But by the early '90s, history had redressed itself somewhat. While replacement members from the Easton version of the band toured as the "original" Kingsmen, Jack Ely finally received some of his due, headlining the 30th Anniversary Louie Louie tour.
In 1998, The Kingsmen sued two companies that held the rights to their recordings. After the companies' lawyer acknowledged that the group hadn't been paid any royalties for 30 years, a lower court judge granted The Kingsmen all royalties from the time they sued. The Kingsmen had finally won control their 1963 monster hit, "Louie, Louie". The Supreme Court let stand a ruling that gave the band their unpaid royalties and control of the song's master recording.
"Louie, Louie" was written in 1955 by Richard Berry, who had moderate success with it in the Los Angeles area in 1957. When he felt the song had run its course, he sold all rights to the song for $750. In 1986, an artists' rights group helped him collect about $2 million in back royalties. Richard Berry passed away in 1997.
On April 28th, 2015, Jack Ely's family announced that he had passed away of an unspecified illness at the age of 71. After stints in bands called The Courtmen and Jack E. Lee And The Squires, he retired from the music business to raise horses in central Oregon.
Although the song itself has been covered repeatedly, the version by Jack Ely and the original Kingsmen line-up remains definitive.
Special thanks to Jack Ely for his help with this bio
Be sure to read Gary James' Interview With The Kingmen's Dick Peterson