Jack Ely was born in Oregon in the 1940s, into a musical family. His father was a singer of some note, and he studied piano from an early age. Still, few could have predicted that he would achieve fame and become the stuff of abiding lore before he was even out of braces. Probably least of all Jack himself, as the 19-year-old sauntered into a friend's garage, hung a battered microphone from a joist and took a great leap into musical iconography.
Jack's band was the Kingsmen ? and the song: Louie, Louie.
In its original version, said to have been penned on a bar napkin a few years earlier, the song was the plaintive wail of a lonesome Jamaican sailor. It conveyed a simple message: he missed his girlfriend, as seamen are wont to do. And if he ever got back to her, he vowed to never leave again. That's about it. It had been covered by others on jukebox 45rpm recordings, to only mild teen approval.
In the hands of the Kingsmen, however, and based on the indistinct diction lent to the lyric by Mr. Ely and his orthodontia, it shot to the top of the charts in 1963. Louie, Louie became the quintessential example of EVerything, good-and-bad, about rock-n-roll. It has been celebrated in books and movies*, and was Exhibit A in countless cautionary sermons, as well prompting a two (count'em)-year FBI study that yielded its own 450-page report.
So, how did our lovesick mariner ditty become such a phenomenon? Several factors contributed.
First, and least important, it was a three-chord masterpiece ? anybody with a fourth-hand fender and a starter amp could play it. The chords, as I recall them from my own piano-boy phase, are simply C, F and G in an uncomplicated pattern: CCC, FF, GGG, FF (rinse, repeat, ad nauseum). The only simpler song in my memory is CCR's "Keep on Chooglin'" ? one chord, 7 minutes and 43 seconds of rousing cacophony that's still a mainstay when I'm on the stepper machine.
Much more significant were the trans-generational imaginations of America's mid-century youth, and their anxious parental units. As Rizzo and Kenicki parked out by the lake, teen-age speculation about the naughtiness of the words ran rampant: oh, whoa ? what did he have planned for that young lady, every night, at ten? You can still find relatively tame versions of the lyrics -- or others so raunchy as to bring color to the cheeks of Trent Reznor. So, 'Louie' and Ely played a pivotal role in the general sexual awakening of the bobby-soxers and their coolest cats.
Curious parents, raised on the subtler yearnings expressed in America's songbook** were also aroused by the noise. Already disquieted by the British Invasion and the relatively tepid, mop-topped 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand,' this song confirmed their worst fears about the effects of the devil's music on tender, budding sensibilities.
It's hard to imagine the fuss, in this era where you have to advocate mayhem against the authorities to generate any reaction, but Middle America of the day was aghast. And anyone can recognize that the phenomenon was self-reinforcing ? the more the adults hated it, the more their kids adored it. Jack Ely's song didn't create the generation gap, but with its help, a crack grew into a gorge.
Of course, other artists noticed. And so we were treated to CSN's "Love the One You're With" (my late, lamented mother's favorite head-shaker), to say nothing of the Motor City Five's kicking out of the jams, ? (to which I'm hopeful and confident, she was never exposed), and Clapton's "dawn surprise."
As for Mr. Ely, he was later deposed as a Kingsman, but seems to have lived a comfortable life. He was active in rockers against drugs, and even adopted a Christian Science lifestyle. It may have been his undoing, as he succumbed to skin cancer. But Louie will live-on, maybe forever ? in garages with bands, in the fecund imaginations of the pubescent, and in the deepest fears of their elders.
* even "Animal House," which was set a year earlier, in 1962, but who's counting?
** the greatest generation really knew how to write romantic ballads, which accounts for the continuing popularity of Sinatra, Tony Bennett and the jazzy piano stylings of Diana Krall.