Some people who visit the state of Washington think that we are weird. That is especially so if they attend a parade or a professional sporting event. There is an underlying musical anthem present here that encourages others to smirk at us. That anthem would best be described as "Louie Louie" fever.
Yes, this state is infatuated with the tune Louie Louie. In fact, a few years ago there was a lobby to have it made the "official" Washington State Song. That did not fly in the long run, but it is still a mighty important song here. Do you doubt what I am saying? Doubters among you -- witness the sight below. Click on the photo and you will see the University of Washington band -- a leading university in the state that produces our top doctors and lawyers. What are they playing? You got it -- Louie Louie.
Now, if you are elsewhere and that glow of feeling superior has already begun, let me explain why that song is important in this state. How did Washingtonians become so infatuated with a tune about a Jamaican sailor? Where did we take the wrong bend in the road that led to this insanity? Sorry to tell you, but the story is long enough to fill a book (and it already has). Since I would like to keep some readers here, I will shorten the story. Hopefully this tour into Pacific Northwest music history will hold your interest.
1n 1961, a Tacoma band called the Fabulous Wailers recorded the tune. It featured a vocal by youthful Rockin' Robin Roberts. The Wailers played dances in Bellingham when I was in middle school. The song was not original to the Wailers, more on that in a minute, but they made changes in it that became essentials of the tune. For example, Robin put in the line: "Okay, let's give it to em' right now." Also, they changed the beat from the original track. This song by the Fabulous Wailers had a lot to do with all of the garage bands that emerged in the 1960's. Sadly, young Rockin' Robin died in a car accident. No video exists of this tune, but you can hear it by clicking on Robin's photo below.
The version of the song that, ultimately, ended up being the gold standard was recorded in 1963 by a group out of Portland, Oregon -- The Kingsmen. I played that version when I worked in radio. The song, mainly inarticulate, was recorded on a shoestring budget, less than $50.00 for the session, and it was completed in an hour. Click on the album cover to hear and see the Kingsmen on the popular TV show Shindig.
Coincidentally, about the same time in 1963, another Portland group recorded the tune. This group was Paul Revere and the Raiders. They went on to have a number of big hits that far exceeded their Louie Louie efforts. Many music critics claim the Raiders did the superior version of Louie Louie, but Mitch Miller (you remember the sing-a-long guy) was an executive at Columbia Records, the label that had signed the Raiders, and he did not like rock n' roll and Mitch saw to it that the song tanked. If you want to see their take on the tune, click on the 45 single.
We are kind of going in reverse here, but to get to the origins of the song we have to leave the Pacific Northwest. Louie Louie was written by Richard Berry, a blues singer out of LA. He released his version in the late 1950's. The northwest bands became familiar with it when Berry played our region. When Richard Berry first recorded the song, the words were benign and totally understandable. On the other hand, the smash hit by the Kingsmen had J. Edgar Hoover worked into a frenzy. At Attorney General Robert Kennedy's request, the song was investigated by the FBI to see if the lyrics were smutty. After much study, the feds figured out what the rest of us knew after listening to the song once -- the Kingsmen butchered the words and a person can hardly understand anything they say.
If you want to see the late Richard Berry perform his legendary song, click on his photo below. This version has been souped-up from the original. By the time of this performance, late 1980's, Berry had updated his early version and it had elements that more accurately reflected the sound of the hit version. Just the same, you can understand the words.
You might wonder why Louie Louie is such a smash in Washington when the big hit was by an Oregon rock group. Fact is, I think that the early version by Rockin' Robin and the Fabulous Wailers, and the changes they made to the tune that stuck with it over the years, gave the song its Washington roots. There you go, the abbreviated story of Washington State's love affair with Louie Louie!
Steven L. Smith
Bellingham WA Home Inspections