If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
Please enter your email and we will send your username and password to you.
“Louie, Louie” and the FBI
By Bill Hoagland
If you are under 50 years of age, you probably think this headline refers to some hoodlum named “Louie” with a thick, Brooklyn accent who was the subject of an FBI investigation. Actually, it does refer to an FBI investigation but not of a hoodlum; it refers, believe it or not, to a song that was extremely popular in the mid-1960’s and because of some mumbled lyrics, became the subject of an intense FBI investigation to determine if it contained obscene words as feared by concerned parents. Because of a renewed interest in censorship these days, perhaps we should review the story of “Louie, Louie” and the FBI.
“Louie, Louie” was written by Richard Berry in 1956. The music had an engaging, calypso beat to it and the lyrics, oddly enough, concerned a sailor from Jamaica who was telling a bartender named “Louie” how much he missed his girlfriend while at sea. There was nothing in these lyrics that by any rational stretch could be considered obscene. In 1963, a band known as “The Kingsmen” recorded their version of the song in Portland, Oregon. Their version used the same lyrics as the Richard Berry version but in the process of recording the Kingsmen’s version, the lyrics were muddled and incomprehensible. There were several reasons for this: the song was recorded on the first take, there was only one microphone used in recording this rendition; and the vocalist (Jack Ely) was only 15 years old at the time, he had strained his voice the night before, and he was wearing braces on his teeth, all facts that contributed to the incomprehensible lyrics.
Ironically, these muddled lyrics led to an alternative version that was, in deed, “obscene” by 1963 standards. These alternative lyrics, created by an unidentified college student, printed up and distributed to various colleges and high schools throughout the country, boosted the astounding popularity of this song over the next few years. The Kingsmen version of this song never adopted the alternative lyrics but that did not matter. By early 1964, parents were demanding that the FBI investigate the situation and prosecute the Kingsmen and others who were responsible for spreading “such filth.”
In early 1964, the FBI opened an investigative file to determine if the “Louie, Louie” recording by the Kingsmen did in fact contain obscene language. That investigation lasted 31 months and involved repeated efforts by the FBI to determine if the obscenities could be heard if the recording were played at speeds ranging from 16 rpm up to 78 rpm. I can just imagine J. Edgar Hoover, sitting there stone-faced with six of his top Special Agents gathered around him, all listening to a record player repeatedly playing “Louie, Louie” over and over, at a variety of speeds—the Special Agents being careful not to subconsciously tap their feet to the calypso beat and Hoover secretly tapping his under his desk.
The FBI file, consisting of 119 pages, is amusing. For example, it includes a letter in which one parent told Hoover she personally listened to the lyrics of a 45 rpm disc played at 33 rpm speed and the lyrics were so filthy that she could not enclose them with her letter to Hoover. Who knows what she imagined she was hearing.
Finally, after numerous interviews with members of the band, the original writer of the song and the producers, plus multiple attempts to discern for themselves what the lyrics were, in October 1966, the FBI officially closed its investigation, declaring that the lyrics were hopelessly “unintelligible.”
I can’t adequately describe how immensely popular the Kingsmen recording was in the 1960’s and it was all due to those muddled lyrics. It certainly led to millions of “romantic engagements”, if you get my drift, and if you were born in the period from early 1964 to 1970, maybe you owe the Kingsmen a debt of gratitude for inspiring your presence on this earth.
Note: Some of my friends still remember the alternative lyrics nearly 60 years later. For an interesting interpretation of these alternative lyrics, look at “Coupe de Ville Movie– Louie Louie” on YouTube.