Richard Berry - Biography
Known for writing and originally performing the staple rock & roll classic “Louie Louie,” Richard Berry was an American singer/songwriter who spent nearly his entire life and career in Los Angeles, California. Though his name will forever be linked to that 1963 standard that The Kingsmen brought to fame, Berry was also a pioneer in the early Los Angeles R&B scene both as a performer and as a songwriter, creating some of the biggest hits for bands like The Sonics and Etta James, while inspiring future stars in every genre (ranging form Barry White to Henry Rollins to Frank Zappa). His ability to sing in both bass and tenor keys (often in the same song) was often emulated by never duplicated, and Berry’s prowess for melody and chorus up there with the greats during in the 1950s-1960s.
Born in Extension, Louisiana, in 1935, Berry’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was just a year old. With hip problems that forced him into crutches until he was six years old, he learned to play ukulele at a summer camp for crippled children. While attending Thomas Jefferson High School in LA, he got his start singing in local doo-wop groups, with other soon-to-be-recognized names like Curtis Williams and Gaynel Hodge (“Earth Angel”), as well as in the groups The Chimes, The Penguins and finally The Flairs (who started recording initially under the name of The Flamingos). In 1953, Berry with and without his group was working on recordings for Modern Records, Flair Records and Flip Records, providing the lead vocal for the Leiber and Stoller-penned song, “Riot in Cell Block #9,” with The Robins (who would be known by their more recognized name, The Coasters, not long thereafter). He was uncredited for his contribution. It was around this time that he sung opposite Etta James on the song, “Roll With Me, Henry.”
In early 1955, Berry disbanded The Flairs and began up another group called The Pharaohs, while at the same working on material for a change-of-pace Latin-tinged calypso group known as Rick Rillera & the Rhythm Rockers for Modern Records. The story is that Berry jotted down lyrics on a napkin that he intended to be a B-side for his recording of “You Are My Sunshine,” using the Rockers’ version of René Touzet’s “El Loco Cha Cha” as his guidepost. The lyrics he wrote were to “Louie Louie,” and he sat on them for a year before the song appeared with a calypso-beat as a Flip Records B-side as Richard Berry & The Pharaohs. Though the track sustained enough regional success to warrant a subsequent pressing as an A-side, it was nothing like a hit. However, other R&B acts of the day began incorporating “Louie Louie” into their set lists, up and down the West Coast, finding that its catchiness made for excited audiences.
Six years later in 1963, The Kingsmen would strip the calypso vibe from the song and release a garage-rock version of “Louie Louie” that would turn it into a transcendent smash hit and universal party anthem, both nationally and internationally. Unfortunately for Berry, he had sold the rights to the song cheaply in 1959 to fund his marriage to Dorothy Adams, and when the song became a hit—and it’s been recorded over 1,000 times since—he saw very little in the way of compensation. It wouldn’t be until the early-1990s, when the rights to his song was sold to Beverly Hills-based Windswept Pacific, that he would see substantial financial reward for the song created.
Berry continued to write and record throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, penning the song “Have Love, Will Travel” which The Sonics turned into a hit. He also wrote the song “Crazy Lover,” which was recorded by The Rolling Band in 1987. In 1983, Berry attended a marathon/benefit put together called “Maximum Louie Louie,” in which he first met The Kingsmen’s Jack Ely, and for 63 hours straight bands performed their versions of “Louie Louie”—800 different versions in all. The event sparked an interest in the song’s long unheralded author, and Berry began to fulfill requests for interviews around the country. He continued to perform into 1994, when a heart aneurysm operation kept him homebound in his South Central residence for the next couple of years. In 1996, at a special benefit at the Petroleum Club in Long Beach, Berry reunited with The Pharaohs for one last concert to benefit the Doo Wop Society of Southern California.
He died of heart failure in January of 1997 as one of the great barely-sung heroes in R&B history.