This session was, by anyone’s standards, a disaster. For starters, singer Jack Ely had sung himself hoarse doing a concert the night before. Another problem was that, in those pre-lyrics-online days, he had taught himself the song by playing it a couple of times on a jukebox and hadn’t really caught all of the words.
More crucially, when he taught the song to the band, he got the beat wrong, changing the original’s 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4, 1-2 to a punchier 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2. Thereby accidentally creating one of the greatest riffs in rock history. (…)
The biggest problem, however, was that the band didn’t realize that their first stab at the song in the studio wasn’t a practice run; it was the only take they were going to get.
The result was a glorious mess. Listen at just before the two-minute mark where the singer starts to come back in from the solo a beat too soon and the rest of the band scrambles to cover it.
The song was released and sold indifferently until rumors started flying that Ely’s incomprehensible shrieking was a deliberate ploy to obscure the lyrics. The reason? The lyrics must be filthy. Soon there were hundreds of versions scribbled on pieces of paper of what everyone though they heard. (…)
As for the FBI, they came to the conclusion that the record was incomprehensible at any speed and therefore, they had no reason to prosecute. By then, of course, “Louie, Louie ” was firmly embedded in the national consciousness and went on to be one of the most covered songs of all time. Also worth mentioning:
The FBI had been so focused on trying to decipher the lyrics that they failed to notice that, at about 55 seconds in, the drummer shouts a muddy “Fuck!” in the background.
A significant error on the Kingsmen version occurs just after the lead guitar break. As the group was going by the Wailers version, which has a brief restatement of the riff two times over before the lead vocalist comes back in, it would be expected that Ely would do the same. Ely, however, overshot his mark, coming in too soon, before the restatement of the riff. He realized his mistake and stopped the verse short, but the band did not realize that he had done so. As a quick fix, drummer Lynn Easton covered the pause with a drum fill, but before the verse ended, the rest of the band went into the chorus at the point where they expected it to be. This error is now so embedded in the consciousness of some groups that they deliberately duplicate it when performing the song.
The Kingsmen transformed Berry’s easy-going ballad into a raucous romp, complete with a twangy guitar, occasional background chatter, and nearly unintelligible lyrics by Ely. A chaotic guitar break is triggered by the shout, “Okay, let’s give it to ’em right now!”, which first appeared in the Wailers version, as did the entire guitar break (although, in the Wailers version, a few notes differ, and the entire band played the break). Critic Dave Marsh suggests it is this moment that gives the recording greatness: “went for it so avidly you’d have thought he’d spotted the jugular of a lifelong enemy, so crudely that, at that instant, Ely sounds like Donald Duck on helium. And it’s that faintly ridiculous air that makes the Kingsmen’s record the classic that it is, especially since it’s followed by a guitar solo that’s just as wacky.”
The first chapter of Eleven Unsung Heroes of Early Rock & Roll is about Jack Ely.