The man who sang one of the greatest rock ‘n roll songs in history has died. Jack Ely, the lead singer for The Kingsmen who delivered the definitive vocal rendition of Louie, Louie, died recently at age 71. His song is an acknowledged classic that is instantly familiar to every rock music fan and was memorably sung by the frat boys in Animal House.
What makes a song great? The Kingsmen’s version of Louie, Louie is only 2 minutes, 46 seconds long. It features a cheesy organ intro, a simple beat, crashing drums, and an off-kilter guitar solo, but what makes it unforgettable are vocals that sound like they were recorded at 3 a.m. in a bus station bathroom by a drunken guy who is singing in a rare Martian dialect. The unique sound occurred because Ely, who was wearing braces at the time, was placed in the middle of the band by the recording engineer to achieve a “live feel” in the recording and had to scream out the lyrics into a microphone located several feet overhead.
The deliciously slurred, garbled result was an immediate hit, in part because you could dance to it and in part because teenage boys across America had heard that the “real” lyrics were “dirty” and bought the record in droves trying to decipher them. In fact, Louie, Louie, which was written by Richard Berry, is a simple, sweet song about a man thinking about the girl he is going to see when he returns to Jamaica — but good luck figuring that out from Ely’s howling, boozy-sounding vocals.
The rumors of a dirty meaning to the song were so persistent and widespread that the FBI and other law enforcement entities actually looked into the issue to determine whether Louie, Louie violated then-existing obscenity laws. They ultimately concluded that The Kingsmen’s version was “unintelligible at any speed.” And that’s what made it great.