Obituary: Richard Berry
Friday 31 January 1997
But few people realise that Richard Berry, the creator of one of rock's most enduring riffs, had sold the copyright to "Louie Louie" for a few hundred dollars to pay for his wedding in 1959. He only regained the rights (and a $2m windfall) to the second-most recorded song of all time (just behind the Beatles' "Yesterday") 11 years ago.
Born in Extension, Louisiana, in 1935, Berry moved to Los Angeles as a child. At Jefferson High School, he would sing doo-wop in the corridors with friends and formed the Flairs, a group which also included Cornelius Gunter (later with the Coasters). During a session for one of his songs, called "She Wants To Rock", Berry met Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two young producers with a great ear for rhythm 'n' blues. Having noticed Berry's piano playing and his uncanny talent for mimicry, they enlisted him to sing the bass part in "Riot in Cell Block No 9", which became a major hit for the Robins in 1954.
The following year, after issuing several singles both as a soloist and with the Dreamers, Berry duetted with Etta James on "The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)", a rather risque response to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' "Work With Me Annie". In 1956, he formed the Pharaohs and cut a cover of "You Are My Sunshine", a Jimmie Davis country standard, for the Flip label. Needing a B-side, Berry fell back on an idea he had had while playing "El Loco Cha Cha" with a Latin band, Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers. Borrowing the tune's simplistic structure (probably influenced by his namesake Chuck Berry's "Havana Moon" and Johnny Mercer's "One For My Baby"), Berry added lyrics about a bartender missing his girlfriend back in Jamaica.
The single was only a regional hit but, in 1960, Rockin' Robin Roberts, a Seattle musician, happened upon a copy in a record-shop bargain bin. He played the flip-side and recorded it with the Wailers (not to be confused with Bob Marley's band), screaming the ad-lib "Let's give it to them now" which was to become such an integral part of the eventual hit version.
This came three years later, after various other bands from north-west America had included the song in their sets. In Portland, Oregon, Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Kingsmen were fighting over "Louie Louie". Having already played a marathon live rendition of the tune, the latter, led by Jack Ely and Lynn Easton dashed to a small studio and recorded it for $50 (Ely had to scream at a mike suspended 12 feet over his head, which accounts for the track's primitive sound). The next day, the Raiders cut theirs, also based on the earlier rendering by Rockin' Robin Roberts.
By December 1963, the Kingsmen's version had won the race and reached No 2 in the American charts, selling over a million copies, becoming the ultimate party anthem and starting a craze for simplistic riffs which lasts to this day ("Wild Thing" by the Troggs and "Funky Cold Medina" by the rap artist Tone Loc are two examples of songs which owe an obvious debt to Berry's baby). In Britain, "Louie Louie" peaked at No 26 the following year but became a regular live favourite with many acts (Otis Redding and Ike and Tina Turner took it back to its R&B roots.)
The catchy, infectious song has been eulogised in print and has been the subject of a documentary. It has survived everything: kazoo and marching band versions (there are two Best of "Louie Louie" albums issued by Rhino Records); marathon renditions (in 1989, 432 guitarists played it in unison for 30 minutes at the Peach Festival in Gaffney, South Carolina, earning an entry in the Guinness Book of Records); John Belushi belting it out in the 1978 movie National Lampoon's Animal House; even an investigation for obscenity by the FBI in 1964. Matthew Welsh, Governor of Indiana, had declared the tune pornographic but, after Ely and Berry testified, federal investigators played the song at 16, 33 and 78rpm and concluded that the lyrics to "Louie Louie" were "unintelligible at any speed".
And they remain so to this day with Berry (who visited Britain in 1993 and played two blistering sets at the 100 Club in London), at last comfortable in his old age after struggling for years to regain the rights to his work, refusing to expand and laughing queries off with: "If I told you the words, you wouldn't believe them anyway".
Richard Berry, singer, songwriter, arranger: born Extension, Louisiana 11 April 1935; twice married; died Los Angeles 23 January 1997.
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