The Kingsmen's story is the story of one song. But what a song! They had other songs but unless you're a blood relative of an original band member you haven't got a clue nor care.
The trouble with playing "live" is other bands can see what you're doing and copy it. In the Northwest of the early '60s there was a thriving teen scene with a well traveled club circuit, including the Spanish Castle, which would stick in Jimi Hendrix's brain until he wrote a song about it. The Bards, Wailers, Don & the Goodtimes, Paul Revere & The Raiders and the Kingsmen were just a few of the bands making the rounds.
Aside from writing their own material, which was an iffy proposition, bands sought out R&B songs they could Rock up. So the search was on. The more obscure the better. The Wailers were the first to uncover Richard Berry's '56 chestnut "Louie, Louie." The song was allegedly based on "El Loco Cha Cha" by Ricky Rivera & the Rhythm Rockers. About a sailor longing for home "Louie, Louie" was huge for the Wailers who launched into 45-minute live versions of the simple yet hypnotic chord progression (C,F,G,F).
An another group, the Kingsmen, saw the song's effect on the audience and decided to use it. While in Portland, OR, for a club date, the band entered the studio and recorded "Louie, Louie." Jack Ely provided the nearly indecipherable vocals.
Those vocals, the chord progression and the overall good-natured sloppy sound provided by the group which included Lynn Easton (sax/vocals), Mike Mitchell (lead guitar), Bob Nordby (bass), Don Gallucci (organ) and Gary Abbott (drums) were the factors behind the record's long lasting appeal. Interestingly, Paul Revere and the Raiders went into the very same studio the next day to record their version. Revere's outfit was signed to Columbia/CBS Records while the Kingsmen's version was out on the newly formed Jerden label. Initially, around the Northwest, the more polished Raider version won out. It also had better distribution. Then something started to happen.
A Boston DJ went on the air and said the Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie" was the worst thing ever recorded. Bit harsh. But it did the trick. "Louie, Louie" was hot in Boston. The notoriety attracted Wand Records' attention and they acquired the national distribution rights. "Louie, Louie" shot to the top of the charts, though never #1. As all this was happening the Kingsmen were falling apart. A clash between Ely and Easton resulted in Ely leaving along with Nordby.
The Kingsmen appeared on TV (with Easton lip-syncing in Ely's place) and were about to go on tour when Gallucci left. Since he was only a high school sophomore his parents wouldn't let him quit school and hit the road. Replacements were found and the Kingsmen carried on.
Just as the song was about to fade away in early '64, the silliness began. On what must have been the decade's slowest news day, Indiana Governor Matthew Welsh tagged "Louie, Louie" as "pornographic" and asked his state's radio stations to ban the song. Operating under the logic that if you "couldn't understand the words they must be dirty" Welsh's comments gained some traction. Soon the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was analyzing the record.
They were playing it fast, slowing it down and playing it backwards. These people eventually left government service and moved to retirement communities in the South where they spent their "golden years" putting Styx records through the same treatment. The FBI launched an investigation and issued a 120-page internal report that came up empty. 120 pages! Your tax dollars hard at work.
In true music biz fashion the original Kingsmen did not get a fair accounting of their royalties until the late '90s. At least they got them.
Numerous performers including marching bands have covered "Louie, Louie." More important the song had a major influence on Rock. The "Louie, Louie" chord progression and variations were integrated into early Kinks songs. The Doors picked it up and gave it a twist for "Hello, I Love You." However, Kinks songwriter Ray Davies felt the Doors had infringed on his "All Day and All of the Night" and was ready to sue until he was told that if he won, Berry would probably come after him. So he let it slide. The "Louie, Louie" chord progression even shows up in the chorus of Boston's "More Than A Feeling."
Like "Summertime Blues" or "Chantilly Lace" before it, or "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," "Whip It" and "Smokin' In The Boys Room" after it, "Louie, Louie" was part novelty and part Rocker. It served as the Kingsmen's defining moment. More importantly it was, like the other songs listed, a perfect touchstone of the time.
The Kingsmen's version of "Louie, Louie" is not the best (Paul Revere and Raiders have that honor) nor the worst (Beach Boys), but it's the one that became a monster hit. The Kingsmen also had minor hits with "Money" and "The Jolly Green Giant." "Best of Kingsmen" and "Greatest Hits" provide THE SONG, secondary hits and selected highlights.