El Loco Cha Cha and the 1-4-5 progression
In the early fifties, a young black man from East LA with a marvelous bass voice was singing great R&B and Doo Wop. He was an unasuming guy with a great charm. He was somewhat lame from childhood polio. One night in 1955, Richard Berry was sitting in the dressing room at the Harmony Park Ballroom waiting to go on. His backup band that night was Rickie Rillera & the Rhythm Rockers . They were already on stage warming up the audience. Their opening number was a cover a popular Rene Tuozet instrumental number called " El Loco Cha Cha ." Richard was fascinated by the simple introduction bass riff, and quickly dashed off the melody line and some notes about lyrical content on a brown paper bag.
After the show, Richard went back to his paper bag, and developed the lyrics. It was to be a simple Jamaican love song about a guy, maybe a sailor, missing his girl across the water. He's telling a story to a guy named Louie . The song he wrote was " Louie Louie ."
Richard recorded the song a year later for Flip as the B-side to " You Are My Sunshine " (Flip 321 - 1956). It was issued on 45 and 78 RPM. The disc sold well on the R&B market, but generally failed to cross over to white Rock n Roll radio. Some 6-700,000 copies were moved by Flipbefore the record faded. From that platform, Richard Berry was recognized as the vocal and writing talent he was. He toured and recorded extensively with Etta James , The Robins , Jesse Belvin , The Flairs , and many more. By the end of the fifties, Richard Berry was a well established vocal talent on the California R&B scene.
After the song fell from the R&B charts, Richard sold the rights for $700 so he could get married. The contract was written on a napkin in a restaraunt. The buyer was Max Freitag . Richard thought that was it for the song, and so why not sell it? He'd already had a follow-up single " Have Love Will Travel " based heavily on the Louie riff.
The Pacific Northwest
In 1959, "Rockin'" Robin Roberts came across Richard's "Louie Louie," and decided to add it to the repertoire of the Wailers, the popular Pacific Northwest band he was working with at the time.
They recorded it, and made it a household "must" in the Seattle/Tacoma area. It was so popular, that every teen band that wanted to play a second time anywhere had to cover it. It was next covered by Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Idaho band that would eventually sign with Columbia. A week or two later, the Kingsmen went into the same studio and recorded a version as well. Their version is starkly different from the Revere version.
Paul Revere & the Radiers covered the Wailers version all right, but got the words right, played well, and Mark Lindsey sang clearly. The production is also quite crisp.
The Kingsmen, covered the Wailers version as well, but unlike Paul Revere & the Raiders, did not do as well in the studio. There were several reasons. First, Lynn Easton, their usual front man didn't sing the song, their teenage bassist Jack Ely did. Jack didn't know all the words, so he mumbles sounds that fit to fill the voids. Second, Jack says that the mic was way over his head (probably set for the much taller Lynn Easton), so he had his head tipped back, stretching his neck and vocal chords. Third, he had braces on. All that added to a lot of unclear vocalizing. Shortly after the recording, Jack Ely left the band and went off on his own across the country.
Both the Paul Revere & the Raiders and the Kingsmen versions of the song were issued. With the clear superiority of the Paul Revere recording, it was destined to make the charts. However, it only made the cut in San Francisco and parts of the Northwest. It was the lesser Kingsmen recording that took the nation by storm, reaching number 2 in Billboard. Why that happened is one of the major chapters in the story of "Louie Louie." The Meaning Of Louie
The lyrics to "Louie Louie" have been the object of considerable discussion for 33 years. Here's a loose interpretation of the chronology:
In the sixties, and throughout the seventies and eighties, many of the imagined lyrics were recorded by the likes of Iggy & the Stooges and Black Flag. The FBI cemented the myth of the dirty words forever into the history of American music, and demonstrated just how stupid legislating morality is. A good use of our tax dollars.
Just think of it, a cripplrd poor black man from the ghetto and a buch of white suburbanite teenagers could have been on the infamous FBI Ten Most Wanted list...amazing!
By the early eighties, Richard Berry was broke and on welfare. He was in a retraining program, learning computer skills so he could get a jkob. His childhood polio had left him slightly lame, and the LA city bus hitting him while he was parked in his car didn't help.
Stretch Riedle called him up and asked if he wanted to join KFJC in their "Maximum Louie Louie" special. He thought it was a lark, a bunch of college kids playing a few records and hosting an old black R&B guy on the air. He was shocked to discover it was nothing of the sort.
The resulting publicity got his lawyer moving and a couple of years later Richard was back in possession of the rights to his song and making a feww hundred thousand dollars a year. Things had changed for Richard Berry.
The best change was what happened in his family. Richard brought his daughter Christi with him. She was 14 and not impressed with dad's past glory. When she witnessed the adoration that was heaped upon him, and the hospitality and love shown him by the staff at KFJC, she became a believer. When Richard got home, his son Marcel began playing bass with Richard, who could now perform more regularly. The new bond they discovered made Richard smile. This is the story of "Louie Louie."
Richard Berry died in his sleep on January 23, 1997. He is loved and missed.
This material was assembled by Phil Dirt with kind assistance from Eric Predoehl and fond remeberences of time spent with Richard Berry. I miss him.
To learn more about Richard Berry and his anthem of the rock generations, visit Eric Predoehl's marvellous web site: THE LOUIE REPORT
PO Box 7123, Berkeley, CA 94707