'Louie Louie': written on lavatory paper and sold for only dollars 750: Richard Williams on a rock 'n' roll classic that sold 300m and inspired a generation

IT HAS been sung by everyone from the torch singer Julie London to the punk hero Iggy Pop, not to mention the Beach Boys, Blondie, Barry White, Eddie and the Hot Rods, David 'Man from UNCLE' McCallum and the Kinks, whose first few hit records unashamedly used it as a template.

Frank Zappa played it impromptu on the pipe organ at the Royal Albert Hall during a Mothers of Invention concert in the late 1960s.

Most recently it was heard on the starting grid at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, performed to an audience of more than half a million spectators by the piping piccolos, grunting sousaphones and prancing majorettes of the 150-strong Purdue University All-American Marching Band, as an overture to one of the great rituals of American sport. Not bad for a song written on a piece of lavatory paper.

There are said to be about 500 recorded versions of 'Louie Louie'. Between them they have sold perhaps 300 million copies in the 37 years since its tentative debut.

As much a classic of American pop art as the Coca-Cola bottle, the penny loafer or the 1957 Chevrolet, it is the song that almost every aspiring pop musician learns first. Yet its composer once sold his rights to it for dollars 750 (pounds 500), with four other songs thrown in.

Richard Berry is a gifted, black Los Angeles-based singer and songwriter whose reputation was confined to rhythm and blues enthusiasts until the cult of 'Louie Louie' began. In 1956 he was playing with Ricky Rivera and the Rhythm Rockers when the song started to come to him. The band was mainly Mexican, and its repertoire included a tune called 'El Loco Cha Cha Cha', based on a rhythmic-harmonic figure that Berry could not get out of his mind - 'cha-cha-cha cha-cha, cha-cha-cha cha-cha' - its chords rising and falling from the tonic through the sub-dominant to the dominant and back again.

One night, waiting to perform at the Harmony Club Ballroom, Berry began to add words. A story started to take shape, written on a strip of paper torn from a handy toilet roll: the story of a Jamaican man, an immigrant to the US, missing his girlfriend, planning a trip back home, dreaming of the voyage and the landfall, and holding her in his arms again.

He dreams aloud, in Jamaican Creole, to a handy bartender, the 'Louie' of the title. Many years later Berry explained that he had devised the scenario with Frank Sinatra's 'One for My Baby' in mind, and in particular its famous wee-small-hours invocation: 'Set 'em up, Joe . . .' In Berry's song, 'Joe' became 'Louie' - or, to fit the rhythmic scheme, 'Louie Louie'.

Berry's version featured the composer's plaintive lead vocal delivered over a goofy bass voice chanting the basic pattern: 'duh-duh-duh duh-duh, duh-duh-duh duh-duh'.

He can't have thought much of his own efforts, since his recording made its first appearance in 1956 as the B-side to his R&B version of 'You Are My Sunshine', written by Jimmie Davis, the former governor of Louisiana. Released on the Flip label, a small Los Angeles company, the record sold a respectable 130,000 copies. The following year, Berry needed money to get married, so he sold the song in a job lot of five. And that, he thought, was the last he would hear of 'Louie Louie'.

It was not, of course. The process of turning the song into a classic began five years later and 1,000 miles up the Pacific coast, when the song was discovered in the bargain bin of a Seattle record store by a singer called Rockin' Robin Roberts. His version, recorded with his band, the Wailers, was a crude approximation of Berry's, with one vital difference: the underlying 'duh-duh-duh duh-duh, duh-duh-duh duh-duh' was transferred from a voice to a guitar, its stresses changed with the addition of an extra 'duh', becoming 'duh-duh-duh-duh duh-duh'.

Roberts's version wasn't a hit, either, but for some reason it became popular among pop-crazed teenagers in nearby Portland, Oregon, where, in May 1963, on consecutive days in the same primitive recording studios, two competing local bands both decided to record it for themselves. The second of these was Paul Revere and the Raiders, who were to enjoy hits later in the decade. Preceding them into the studio, though, were a quartet called the Kingsmen, who spent two hours and dollars 50 doing their best to copy Rockin' Robin Roberts's arrangement.

Jack Ely, the Kingsmen's lead singer, had to strain to reach a microphone suspended near the studio's ceiling. The effect of a contorted larynx, combined with the limitations of his vocal talent, and the implications of his attempt to mimic Rockin' Robin Roberts's imitation of Richard Berry's imitation of a Jamaican accent, resulted in the reduction of Berry's charming lyric to near-indecipherability.

Clearly Ely couldn't make out all the words and fudged entire lines by simply approximating the sound. 'Me see Jamaica moon above', for instance, became 'Me say dar-ay-kah da-mooh above'.

This was the version that made the song famous, partly because of the sheer universal infectiousness of its version of the three-chord trick - 'duh-duh-duh duh-duh, duh-duh-duh duh-duh' (the Kingsmen had dropped the extra 'duh') - but also because of its amateurishness. This version of 'Louie Louie' made Elvis Presley sound like Bing Crosby, defining a kind of rock 'n' roll that seemed forever out of the reach of grown-ups. Not the least of its charms was the moment, shortly after the guitar solo, when Ely tried to start the third verse two bars too soon, his blunder half-obliterated by a series of startled drum rolls.

Luckily, the Kingsmen's recording budget would not stretch to another attempt at the song. Nor did the available technology permit a remix, so Ely's premature entry was heard around the world.

And, gradually, from Memphis to Merseyside, kids in beat groups heard it and felt confirmed in a growing suspicion that enthusiasm was more important to rock 'n' roll than technical competence or literal meaning.

Richard Berry - who was later able to reclaim some of his rights to the song - looked on in amazement as his 'duh-duh-duh duh-duh, duh-duh-duh duh-duh', with its simple story of a homesick Jamaican, became a cornerstone of contemporary popular music.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power