Jack Ely, former vocalist for the Kingsmen, died yesterday at the age of 71. Along with Lynn Easton, he founded the band in 1959, but he’ll be remembered for a one-take session in April of 1963. Tilting his head back toward a mike suspended from the ceiling, and singing through braces that had just been tightened, Ely led the band through their most popular number, a cover of Richard Berry’s “Louie, Louie.”
The song made it to number 2 on the charts, staying there for six weeks. (It was kept from the top spot by The Singing Nun and by Bobby Vinton, both of whom had 4-week runs at #1.) Unfortunately, Ely was driven out of the band shortly thereafter, when Easton’s mother (who had registered and owned the name of the band) essentially staged a coup to make her son the new frontman. Ely briefly fronted his own version of the Kingsmen, but after legal action, had to use a new name. As Wikipedia tells us:
Following legal action, a settlement was reached and Easton, Mitchell, Peterson, Curtis and Sundholm established their rights to the “Kingsmen” name. Thus, Ely was forced to stop using the name, Easton was forced to stop lip syncing to Ely’s vocals, and subsequent releases of “Louie Louie” were required to have the text “Lead vocal by Jack Ely” below the title. Unable to perform using the Kingsmen name, Ely continued with his groups the Squires and the Courtmen. He also received a gold record for “Louie Louie” as part of the settlement.
Meanwhile, the various Kingsmen received no royalties for the track for a couple of decades, a situation that was resolved in 1998. In its own way, this, too is an archetypal rock and roll story.
But none of that matters, really — nor does the FBI investigation of the song’s allegedly obscene lyrics (which somehow missed the F-bomb at about 53 seconds in). What matters is that Ely’s version of “Louie Louie” is the Mitochondrial Eve of garage rock, punk, and damned near every other form of rock that came after. What matters is that the first time the Berries played in front of an audience (at a Mondoville College talent show), we asked the audience to “please rise for our national anthem” and played “Louie Louie”, and the kids — some of whose parents may not have been born when the song was a hit — went nuts.
So thanks for that, Mr. Ely, and safe travels.