The USA was a strange place in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Youth culture was in its infancy and the establishment was disturbed at is growth. The establishment was disturbed by many things. There was fear at the growth of communist influence in Cuba and Latin America. There was fear of a perceived increasing threat from communism at home. Homophobia was rife. Institutionalised racism was being challenged. Rock and roll was threatening the morals of the young and Louie Louie was at the forefront of the threat, or not.
Louie Louie was written by Richard Berry in 1956. It told the story of a Jamaican sailor being upset at being away from his girlfriend. In the song
the sailor poured out his woes to Louie Louie (a bartender). It was a popular song, but not a hit. By 1963 the song was a popular tune played by many bands in the Washington area. Two of them recorded versions within days of each other, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and The Kingsman. For a while the Paul Revere version seemed the most popular but eventually the Kingsmen’s version won out. That is when the problems started.
The trouble with the Kingmen’s version was that it was impossible to understand the lyrics. Jack Ely, the lead singer, could have been singing about anything. Rumours began to circulate that the lyrics were dirty and obscene. Alternative lyrics were produced and passed round. Governor Matthew Welch of Indiana banned the song from being played on local radio stations in his state. Robert Kennedy (Attorney General of the USA) received a letter from a concerned parent in February 1964. Having heard that the song was obscene this parent thought that he had deciphered the lyrics and he was convinced the lyrics were indeed rude.
The FBI, keen to uphold the morals of the country opened a file on the song (I will not make the obvious comments about Edgar J Hoover and his personal peccadilloes wanting to protect the morals of 1960s middle American youth). That the lyrics were obscene was accepted as fact. The FBI investigated and interviewed everyone involved including Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Kingsmen, Richard Berry and those connected with the record company. It must have passed them by that the singer with the Kingsmen that they interviewed was not the singer on the record. Jack Ely had been sacked from the band just after the recording. They never interviewed him. They played the record at different speedto see if they could identify the lyrics and consulted various experts for advice.
The result of 30 month’s investigation into this scandal? There was a report sent to the Director of the FBI on 25th May 1965 which said “The department advised that they were unable to interpret any of the wording on the record and, therefore, could not make a decision concerning the matter. Also that the AUSA at Tampa, FLA and Hammond, Indiana, have declined