At 10 in the morning of April 6, 1963, 21 year-old Jack Ely hauled himself into a Northwestern Inc, a cheap studio in Portland with the rest of The Kingsmen. A local DJ named Ken Chase had seen the group play a 90 minute version of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” and insisted that they get it down on tape as quickly as possible. Although the studio was used primarily for recording radio commercials, it would have to do.
The band gathered in a circle around one overhead microphone about five feet above everyone’s heads and launched into the song (two other mics were used: one of the guitar amps and other near the drums). Ely was forced to lean his head all the way back and sing more-or-less straight up into the mic–not the best technique, of course. And he had to scream more than sing just to be heard about the instruments. Complicating matters was the set of heavy braces on his teeth. Everything sounded…slurry.
When they finished their warm-up take, they were told to go home. “Why? What’s wrong?” they asked.
“Nothing,” said their manager and the people in charge of the session. “We recorded your run-through. It sounds great. We’ll use that. Besides, all you have is fifty bucks to pay for everything. And since we also have to record a B-side, that should just about cover it.’
“But we made a bunch of mistakes! Jack came in too early on the third verse! Lynn [Easton, the drummer] tried to cover up the mistake with a drum fill that doesn’t belong there. Listen!”
“Don’t care. It sounded great.”
It still sounds great: raw and live and awesome. It also didn’t hurt that rumours soon started to swirl that the lyrics–whatever they were–were highly pornographic (something about a sailor having sex with his girlfriend). Copies of the “real” lyrics circulated among teenagers. The governor of Indiana ordered the song off the radio. Even the FBI was called into try and decipher what was really being said, returning two years later with the verdict that “Louie Louie” was “indecipherable at any speed.” (More on the bizarre theories involving “Louie Louie” can be found here.)
Jack Ely died this week at 71, apparently from skin cancer. He will forever be remembered as the singer of one of the greatest rock’n’roll classics.