The song that made Jack Ely famous is one in which he can hardly be heard.
Recorded in a single take at a tiny Portland, Ore., studio in 1963 with Ely craning his neck to shout into a microphone raised several feet above his head, his cover of “Louie Louie” made for an improbable hit. Its simple three-chord progression and minimalist lyrics proved infectious — not that the lyrics mattered much, since Ely’s braces and garbled growl rendered his words almost completely incomprehensible.
But something about the buoyant garage rock anthem captured people’s imaginations, drawing audiences onto the dance floor and inspiring hundreds of covers in the decades since. It also caught the attention of the FBI, which spent several months after its release listening to the record on repeat to determine whether Ely’s mangled vocals obscured a pornographic message.
Ely, who died Tuesday at 71 after an undisclosed illness, was only 20 when he recorded “Louie Louie.” It was his biggest and only hit, but he rarely lamented his one-hit-wonder status, Ely’s son Sean told the Associated Press.
After all, if you’re going to build a legacy on just two minutes and 42 seconds of music, “Louie Louie” — said to be the most-recorded song in rock history — is a pretty good bet.
Ely’s band the Kingsmen — he and three friends from his high school in Portland — wasn’t the first to record a version of the song. The original version, written by Richard Berry, fused calypso and cha cha, and was already a modestly successful rock song by the time the Kingsmen came across it in 1962 on the jukebox at a small-town “teen club” where they played. Still teenagers, the band members was forbidden by their parents from playing at real bars, according to author Dave Marsh.
“When it came on the jukebox, everybody in the room got up and started dancing. I mean everybody,” Ely told writer Peter Blecha for his book “Sonic Boom.”
When the song ended, there was a moment’s pause while the jukebox reset itself. Then — “dun dun dun, dun dun” — the song’s catchy opening chords played a second time. And then a third.
“Somebody had plugged that jukebox so it would play the same song over and over, and every time, everybody’d dance,” Ely said. “I looked at [fellow Kingsman Lynn Easton] and said ‘We’ve got to learn this song.'”
By the following year, “Louie Louie” had become a Kingsmen staple. Their manager Ken Chase, who owned the club where they were the house band, persuaded the group to do a 90-minute set in which they played the song on loop, Marsh wrote.
When the band wrapped up their marathon show, Chase said, “Okay, that’s it. You’re ready to record. We’re going to the studio tomorrow morning.”
Bleary-eyed and anxious, the four Kingsmen showed up at a small Portland studio, Northwestern Inc., the following day. Chase acted strangely: First, he arranged the band members in a circle, with Ely in the center yelling up at the microphone — apparently an effort to mimic how the band sounded at his club, Ely told Blecha.
Then, 60 bars into their first run-through, Chase got into a fight with the engineer. He pushed the other man out of the control booth and told the band to start again from the top.
Thinking this was another run-through, the Kingsmen played the song again, somewhat haphazardly. At one point Easton dropped his drumstick, and at another Ely flubbed his vocals by coming in too early.
“I stood there and yelled while the whole band was playing and when it was over, we hated it,” he told the Bend Bulletin in 1987. “We thought it was a totally non-quality recording.”
But Chase was done.
“We’ve got it … sounds great,” he told the band, according to Blecha.
So the Kingsman packed up their instruments, got Easton’s mom to pay the recording fee — she had also driven them to the studio — and headed back to their regular lives.
That session was the beginning and the end of Ely’s musical career. Arguing with the band, he left the Kingsmen a few months after recording “Louie Louie” and started performing with a few other groups, none of which seemed to catch on. Then he was drafted to serve in Vietnam. By the time he returned to the United States, a music career seemed unlikely. Ely struggled with and overcame drug addiction, then moved to a horse farm in central Oregon.
Meanwhile, “Louie Louie” took on a life of its own. The song shot to No. 2 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart, sold millions of copies and became a party favorite.
It also raised the hackles of parents and public officials suspicious about the song’s slurred vocals. Rumor had it that if the record was played at 33 1/3 rpm instead of 45 rpm, the original lyrics about a Jamaican sailor returning to his love morphed into something far more explicit. The governor of Indiana wound up banning the song, calling it so pornographic that his “ears tingled.”
“We all know there is obscene material available for those who seek it, but when they start sneaking in this material in the guise of the latest teen age rock & roll hit record these morons have gone too far,” one father wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. “This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation what with this record, the biggest hit movies, the sex and violence exploited on T.V. How can we stamp out this menace????”
The deluge of complaints pushed the FBI to investigate the song’s supposedly obscene undercurrents, according to recently released documents. Agents spent months playing the record at every possible speed, listening for a subliminal message that Ely said was never there. Eventually they gave up, concluding that the lyrics were unintelligible at any speed.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Ely said he was always bemused by the conspiracy theories about his cover.
“I always thought the controversy was record-company hype,” he said.
Whatever it was, it seemed to work. The rumors gave “Louie Louie” an aura of rebelliousness that made it even more popular amid the “moral degradation,” as the enraged father who wrote to RFK put it, of the 1960s.
“It became like a northwest national anthem,” Kingsmen keyboardist Don Gallucci told Mental Floss in 2011. “If you were auditioning for a nightclub, you had to be able to play ‘Louie Louie’ or they wouldn’t hire you.”
The list of artists who have covered the song is extensive — Eric Predoehl, who is producing a documentary on the song’s history, puts the total at about 1,700. There are covers from the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Ike and Tina Turner, Nirvana, Patti Smith and the Clash. There’s a punk version by Black Flag and an honest-to-goodness foul-mouthed version by the Stooges who, three days before they broke up for three decades, purportedly played a 45-minute version to antagonize an audience of hostile bikers.
“First and foremost, it’s a real easy song to play,” Predoehl told the Associated Press, explaining the song’s popularity. “Second, it’s got a great beat. Third, it’s got a lot of notoriety, meaning it must be naughty, so it must be fun,”
As for Ely, the 20-year-old whose rough rendition of the song made it famous? He only ever got $5,000 for his recording. But Sean Ely said his father was never resentful about his career.
“He wanted to try on different occasions to pursue other endeavors in the music industry,” Ely’s son told the AP. “But I think when it was all done and said he was pretty happy that he did ‘Louie Louie.’”