'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)

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