The Associated Press reports that the former Kingsmen frontman Jack Ely, most famous for singing the most famous version of the garage-rock standard “Louie Louie,” died yesterday at home in Redmond, Oregon. He’d been battling an illness for a long time, though his son Sean says, “Because of his religious beliefs, we’re not even sure what [the illness] was.” Ely was 71.
Ely formed the Kingsmen with his high school friend Lynn Easton in 1959. In 1963, the band booked an extremely cheap studio to record their version of “Louie Louie,” a song that the Los Angles musician Richard Berry had recorded in 1957. Berry’s version had been more or less a calypso track, but a 1961 rock and roll cover of the song by the Tacoma bandleader Rockin’ Robin Roberts turned it into a Pacific Northwestern regional hit. The Kingsmen’s famously sloppy version became an out-of-nowhere national hit, despite or possibly because of Ely’s near-incomprehensible vocal. Ely sang the song at a microphone that was suspended a few feet over his head, while recording live in studio with the band. And for years, people claimed to hear some deeply dirty lyrics in the song.
After the band recorded the song but before it became a hit, Ely split with the band, reportedly because Easton decided that he wanted to be the frontman. After the song hit huge, Ely got into a legal battle with the Kingsmen, eventually winning $6000 in royalties and a credit on future pressings of the song. Because he didn’t write the song, he never got any further royalties for it. He soon formed his own band the Courtmen, but their few records weren’t successful, and he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam war in 1968. After returning, Ely battled and overcame addiction, and he became a horse trainer. Below, check out footage of some version of the Kingsmen playing “Louie Louie.”