Jack Ely dies at 71; vocalist on the Kingsmen’s ‘Louie Louie’

When he stood on his toes, leaned his head back and began to incoherently shout “Louie Louie” into a microphone 52 years ago, Jack Ely had no idea he was creating a rock `n’ roll classic.

The 1963 record was supposed to be a demo for the band he fronted, the Kingsmen. It became one of the most famous one-hit wonders of all time and led to a federal investigation into its suspected dirty lyrics.

Ely, 71, died Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Redmond, Ore., said his son, Sean Ely.


“Right out of his mouth, my father would say, `We were initially just going to record the song as an instrumental, and at the last minute I decided I’d sing it,’” Ely’s son, Sean Ely said.

When it came time to do that, however, Jack Ely discovered the sound engineer had raised the studio’s only microphone several feet above his head. Then he placed Ely in the middle of his fellow musicians, all in an effort to create a better “live feel” for the recording.

The result, Ely said over the years, was that he had to stand on his toes, lean his head back and shout as loudly as he could just to be heard over the drums and guitars. Just about the only words anyone could clearly understand were contained in the song’s first two lines: “Louie Louie. Oh no. We gotta go.”

But the driving, three-chord instrumental progression was maddeningly memorable, as were the song’s opening lines, delivered with just the right amount of rebellious if slurry snarl.

Because of a rumor that the song had dirty lyrics, especially when played at slow speed, the FBI launched a long investigation. The bureau ultimately determined the recording was “unintelligible at any speed.”

Everyone from Ike and Tina Turner to the Clash began covering the song, and the movie “Animal House” (1978) gave it new life. Rhino Records released two albums of cover versions, including one by the Rice University Marching Owl Band.

“First and foremost, it’s a real easy song to play. Second, it’s got a great beat. Third, it’s got a lot of notoriety, meaning it must be naughty, so it must be fun,” said Eric Predoehl, who is producing a documentary on the song’s history called “The Meaning of Louie.” He counts at least 1,700 cover versions, including numerous ones by garage bands.

The actual lyrics tell of a sailor who misses his girl back home. He is telling his troubles to a bartender named Louie.

Ely left the Kingsmen in a dispute with other band members shortly after recording “Louie Louie.” He later trained horses in Central Oregon and, according to his son, was content with his legacy as a one-hit wonder.