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How the universally recognized song "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen came to be

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Sixty years ago, a song began climbing the pop charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE KINGSMEN SONG, "LOUIE LOUIE")

RASCOE: "Louie Louie," recorded by the Kingsmen. Almost everybody knows it, but almost nobody can understand the words.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOUIE LOUIE")

THE KINGSMEN: (Singing, inaudible).

RASCOE: And even fewer people know the history of a West Coast dance hit that became a party anthem, with an FBI investigation and a Supreme Court case along the way. Here's Deena Prichep.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: At an art gallery in Portland, Ore., dozens of people gathered this month for a 24-hour "Louie Louie" marathon. There were ukulele covers and Tuvan throat singers and the straight-up classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: One, two, three, four...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Louie Louie, oh, oh, me gotta go...

PRICHEP: Fans shouted along day and night to a song whose popularity has lasted decades. But it all started with a recording that's nearly been forgotten. In the 1950s, Richard Berry, an LA musician, took a riff from a cha-cha song and slapped on some lyrics about a sailor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOUIE LOUIE")

RICHARD BERRY: (Singing) Louie Louie, me gotta go.

PRICHEP: Then he took it on tour up and down the West Coast. According to music writer Peter Blecha, that's when things took off.

PETER BLECHA: And it became the required song that every Northwest teenage band had to play at every dance every week.

PRICHEP: One of those teenage bands was The Kingsmen. Now, there have been other versions, but this was the one that took the song from regional dance standard to a national phenomenon, even though it's not the best recording.

BLECHA: I mean, the drummer is just hitting the cymbals on the wrong notes.

PRICHEP: The studio itself didn't know how to record rock 'n' roll, just had a single microphone on the ceiling. And the manager only let them do one take.

BLECHA: The other factors going on was that Jack Ely, the singer of The Kingsmen, was wearing braces.

PRICHEP: It turned out having words nobody could understand would prove surprisingly important. Dick Peterson joined the band in 1963. And he says when kids couldn't understand the song, they came up with their own lyrics, dirty lyrics.

DICK PETERSON: We were on the front page of every newspaper saying that we were corrupting the moral fiber of the youth of America. J. Edgar Hoover started - launched an investigation. They woke us up in the middle of the night, pounding on the door, FBI, FBI.

PRICHEP: In addition to the obscenity investigation, the song was banned by the governor of Indiana. Eventually, The Kingsmen went in front of the FCC.

PETERSON: The magistrate, I guess he's called, or judge - he said, let me hear it. And he thought, why are you fighting over this? It's a piece of junk. And so he said, listen. Nobody can tell what it says. I'm going to deem it unintelligible at any speed and lift the ban.

PRICHEP: And Peterson says the controversy is part of what kept it on the charts. "Louie Louie" has now been covered a ridiculous number of times.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED MARCHING BAND'S "LOUIE LOUIE")

PRICHEP: It's a marching band standard.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED MARCHING BAND'S "LOUIE LOUIE")

PRICHEP: It's been featured in advertisements and movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOUIE LOUIE")

THE KINGSMEN: (Singing, inaudible).

PRICHEP: It's also been part of a royalty lawsuit Dick Peterson took all the way up to the Supreme Court. It's a pretty big story for a pretty simple song. But music writer Peter Blecha says that's why it works. He quotes the musician Paul Revere, who recorded another popular early version.

BLECHA: He said the reason for the popularity is because of its simpleness, its stupidness. He goes, "three chords and the most mundane beat possible." He goes, "any idiot could learn it, and they all did."

PRICHEP: And 60 years later, they're still playing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing) A fine little girl - she waits for me.

PRICHEP: Because music isn't always about complexity or even skill. Sometimes, it's just about a song that makes you feel good, even if you don't understand the words. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing) Louie Louie... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deena Prichep