The Kingsmen - Biography
By Bob Fagan
The Kingsmen formed in the late 50s in Portland, Oregon. The date of their formation is given variously as 1957 and 1959. The original band members were mostly still in their mid-teens when they first came together. Playing spirited if sloppy covers of the hits of the day, they were a popular favorite frat-rock and dance party band. In 1963 they entered a tiny recording studio and recorded their version of a song entitled “Louie Louie,” which was already known through recordings by its author Richard Berry (1957 Flip Records) as well as their Tacoma, WA rivals The Wailers, who released their version in 1961.
The song’s historical background is worth noting. Berry adapted the chords and rhythm from the song “Amarren Al Loco,” by Cuban musician and bandleader Rosendo Ruiz Jr. Keeping the song’s cha-cha-cha rhythm, Berry wrote a new set of pidgin-English lyrics inspired by similar songs by Chuck Berry (no relation), specifically his “Havana Moon.” (Chuck Berry had been convinced that Caribbean music was the next big thing, and recorded several songs in this style. Although none were hits, they did presage the emergence into mainstream popular music of salsa and reggae decades later.) Richard Berry’s original was written as a doo-wop song, with the signature 10-note riff being sung by a bass voice rather than played on an instrument. To date the song remains the most covered song in the world, with well over a thousand versions by musicians and bands from every imaginable genre; it is likely the only single song to have a book written about it. It would have made Richard Berry a very rich man had he not sold the rights to Flip for a pittance.
The Kingsmen's version drew directly from the Wailers’ recording. At the time of the recording the Kingsmen were Jack Ely (singer/guitarist), Lynn Easton (drums), Don Galluci (piano), Mike Mitchell (guitar) and Bob Nordby (bass). The record was released on Jerdon, a small local label, and shortly afterwards licensed to Wand Records. The Kingsmen’s version is a clattering, clumsy but raw and exciting slice of pre-Beatles rock 'n' roll. The song rose to number 2 on Billboard's rock 'n' roll charts; interestingly, it reached all the way to number 1 on the R&B charts, a rare feat for an all-white group.
A controversy soon erupted over the supposedly obscene song lyrics, which led to the song being banned in certain areas of the country. The FBI was ultimately called in to investigate. Specifically, the line “I’ll never leave you again” was interpreted by those seeking smut as “I’ll never lay you again.” After a supposed two-year investigation and presumably thousands of repeated listenings the FBI dropped the investigation, finding Jack Ely’s slurred vocals simply incomprehensible. One wonders why none of them thought to investigate the lyrics by simply purchasing the sheet music for the song.
The band fractured not long after the song was released. Easton’s mother had copyrighted the band name and forced Ely out of the band, replacing him with her son. Ely suffered the ignominy of seeing Easton lip synch to his (Ely’s) vocals on the band’s national television appearances. He formed his own version of the Kingsmen; lawsuits and countersuits followed. Ultimately, Easton was prevented from lip synching to Ely’s vocals, and Ely lost the right to use the band name.
Easton’s Kingsmen continued to release records with some occasional chart success. They also re-released “Louie Louie” in 1966; the song reached number 67 in the charts. Their second biggest hit was “The Jolly Green Giant,” released in 1965 and reaching number 4. At a time when performers such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan wrote almost all their own material, cover bands like The Kingsmen were seen as an anachronism, although Dylan’s greatest hit “Like a Rolling Stone” borrows “Louie Louie”’s chords for its chorus, and virtually every British Invasion band recorded a version of the song as well. Rather amazingly, the band soldiered on until the early 70s; their last documented release prior to later reunions was the single “You Better Do Right,” issued on Capitol in 1973.
Following his departure from The Kingsmen, Ely formed The Courtmen, who were signed to Bang Records in 1966. He currently maintains a Myspace page featuring songs closer in style to 80s metal than early 60s garage rock. He occasionally performs in the Northwest as Jack Ely and the Courtmen. Yet another version of the band featuring “original members” Dick Peterson and Mike Mitchell (both had left the band before “Louie Louie” was recorded) plays oldies tours, riding on the success of a song neither of them played on.
Don Galluci went on to form Don and the Goodtimes in 1964 and Ely was their vocalist for a brief period. They became famous after Dick Clark hired them as the house-band on the Saturday afternoon television show Where The Action Is. They also had a hit with the Jack Nitzsche-produced "I Could Be So Good to You" on Epic Records in 1967. After the break up of the band in 1968, Galluci turned to producing; his best known work is the seminal punk rock album, Fun House by The Stooges. The Stooges frequently played “Louie Louie” in their live sets. The infamous Open Up and Bleed bootleg of The Stooges' last performance (not including their recent reunion) features an openly obscene version, with singer Iggy Pop clearly singing the dirty words everyone imagined they heard in Ely's mumbled version.
The Kingsmen’s simple (sometimes inept) but exciting and enthusiastic style has inspired generations of musicians, particularly the who-cares-if-we-can’t-play ethos of the punk scene. If The Kingsmen themselves now largely belong to history, their raw and engaging version of “Louie Louie” has ensured the song a home in the set lists and recordings of hundreds if not thousands of bands, from Motorhead to the Grateful Dead, from Young MC to Toots and the Maytals, from The Kinks to The Beach Boys.