Richard Berry, singer-composer of party hit 'Louie, Louie,' dead at 61
Jan. 24, 1997
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Richard Berry, the singer-composer whose hit ``Louie, Louie'' once provoked a federal investigation into its lyrics and became a rock anthem, especially at frat parties, has died at 61.
More singers have covered the three-chord standard, written in 1955 as a Jamaican love song, than any pop tune besides Paul McCartney's ``Yesterday,'' estimated Eric Predoehl, a filmmaker working on a television documentary of Berry's life.
Berry died in his sleep Thursday at his home in South Central Los Angeles, possibly of complications from an aneurysm, said John Kim, who was also working with Berry, on a feature film biography.
While the lyrics were rumored to be obscene when the record was played slowly, federal investigators said, ``We found the record to be unintelligible at any speed we played it.'' The song tells of finding true love in Jamaica, but racier versions spread by word of mouth. Some schools banned the song and the bands that played it.
Iggy and the Stooges recorded a dirty version, according to The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.
Berry sold the rights to all his work, including ``Louie Louie,'' in 1956 for $750, said Predoehl.
``He was just a tremendously kind and generous man, and he experienced a tremendous amount of hardship,'' Kim said. ``He was a black man growing up in L.A. in 1950s, he had his most famous song taken away for a paltry sum of money.''
In 1986, an artists' rights group helped Barry recover royalties worth about $2 million. He continued to live in South Central, performing from time to time.
Berry recorded ``Louie Louie'' in 1957 with the Pharoahs on Flip Records. It was intended as the B-side of ``You Are My Sunshine.''
Rockin' Robin Roberts, according to legend, found the disc in a Tacoma, Wash., 10-cent bin and recorded it with the Wailers in 1960. It became a regional hit in the Seattle-Tacoma area, and other Northwest bands were quick to put it in their repertoire.
The hit version _ the version copied by bar bands everywhere _ was recorded by the Kingsmen in 1963. Its reedy electric organ intro gives way to a three-chord guitar thrum that even beginners could play.
Blame the drunken-sounding lyrics on the primitive studio _ singer Jack Ely had to scream the words at a microphone suspended 12 feet over his head.
The song, a hip party tune that preceded the Beatles' huge success in the United States, rose to No. 2 on the Billboard charts in December 1963.
``Everybody can play it, basically,'' said Jeff Riedle, who has collected about 1,000 versions of the song. ``It's three-chord rock 'n' roll. It defined what garage rock 'n' roll was about.''
The song enjoyed a revival following the 1978 parody of college fraternity life, ``National Lampoon's Animal House.'' In 1987 and 1989, Oregon lawmakers proposed making the Kingsmen's version the official state rock song.
Born in Extension, La., Berry lived in Los Angeles from age 1. At Jefferson High School, he started singing doo-wop music, later joining the Flamingos and other groups.
As a singer, he was known for his range and style, sometimes taking bass and tenor parts on the same song. ``Even if this man never wrote `Louie Louie,' he should go down in history as one of the great pioneers in American rhythm and blues,'' Predoehl said.
Berry sang the lyrics on the original ``Riot in Cell Block No. 9,'' and sang counterpart to Etta James on her recording of ``Roll With Me Henry.''
Until 1986 and his copyright victory, Berry struggled, performing where he could.
``He was able to live more comfortably after that,'' Predoehl said.
Berry suffered an aneurysm in 1994.
Berry met the Kingsmen in the early 1980s at a Tacoma ``reunion'' concert that included the Wailers, said Dick Peterson, the Kingsmen's drummer. Two years ago, he was honored in a commemorative plaque at the building where the Kingsmen recorded ``Louie Louie.''
Berry is survived by his mother, Bertha Harris, and six grown children: Pamela, Richard Marcel, Stephani, Karen, Linda and Christy, who all use the Berry surname. Richard and Christy are also musicians.
Funeral arrangements were still being made.