Written by the Louisiana-born , Louie Louie was inspired by his hearing a Latino-Californian band performing a song with the soon-to-be iconic rhythm. Berry married the rhythm to an R&B-calypso fusion and composed lyrics from the perspective of a lonely Jamaican sailor.
Scoring a regional hit in 1957 with the original recording, the song was picked up—and amped up—by bands in the thriving garage rock scene of the Pacific Northwest. Newly recorded versions included one by the Washington-based band The Kingsmen (1963), which rose to number two on the national charts.
The oddity of the left-field hit was exceeded only by the oddity of the nation’s response to it. Recording in only one take, the Kingsmen transformed Louie Louie from a laid-back calypso into a raucous frat anthem with a monomaniacal emphasis on the ten-note riff and a slurred, indecipherable vocal performance.
A two-year investigation by the FBI centered on the alleged obscenity of the lyrics but ultimately determined the song “unintelligible at any speed” in a 250-page report. Louie Louie made its way from being just another one-off novelty hit to a source of cultural anxiety, sexual fantasy, inspiration for hundreds of cover versions, and touchstone for both punk rockers and nostalgic baby boomers.
This according to “Louie Louie: The history and mythology of the world’s most famous rock’n’roll song” by Dave Marsh (New York: Hyperion, 1993). Above the hit single’s Gold Record ceremony; below, an early 1960s time capsule.