When he stood on his toes, leaned his head back, and began to incoherently shout "Louie Louie" into a microphone 52 years ago, Jack Ely had no idea he was creating a rock 'n' roll classic. Nor did the lead singer of The Kingsmen know he was laying the groundwork for one of the first federal investigations into dirty song lyrics, all while creating a tune so memorable that everybody from the Beach Boys to Nirvana would record it. Ely, who died yesterday at the age of 71, simply walked into a tiny Portland, Ore., recording studio with his band one day in 1963 to cut an instrumental version of a song that had been a regional hit—one that kids could dance to. The song was written and recorded by the late LA R&B musician Richard Berry and would be recorded by others, most notably Rockin' Robin Roberts & The Wailers, before Ely and his group discovered it.
"My father would say, 'We were initially just going to record the song as an instrumental, and at the last minute I decided I'd sing it," Ely's son, Sean Ely, said yesterday. When it came time to do that, however, Ely discovered the sound engineer had raised the only microphone several feet above his head. Then he placed Ely in the middle of his fellow musicians to create a better "live feel." The result, Ely would say, was that he had to stand on his toes, lean his head back, and shout as loudly as he could just to be heard over the drums and guitars. With people unable to understand much of what Ely was singing, some claimed they heard lewd words about a girl the singer was to meet up with. Radio stations began to ban "Louie Louie," and the FBI launched an investigation, eventually determining the song was "unintelligible at any speed." Sean Ely said his father got "quite the kick" out of that. Ely left the band shortly after recording "Louie Louie" and, according to his son, was content with his legacy as a one-hit wonder.