Turning 50. It's a daunting prospect for anyone (and I should know). But for a pop song? Most fade away long before they reach that mark. One exception: the legendary "Louie Louie" — that eternally youthful 1960s garage-rock anthem first recorded exactly 50 years ago this month. Far from shuffling off to a quiet retirement, evidence indicates that "Louie Louie" may actually prove to be immortal.
By any measure, the fabled tune's life path has been a remarkable one. This is a ditty that started life as the mere B-side of an R&B single, yet went on to bypass the Beatles' "Yesterday" as the most frequently recorded rock song (currently about 1,600 versions) in history. It has withstood an FBI anti-pornography investigation as well as a half-serious grass-roots campaign to establish it as our official state song. It's the subject of a couple of history books (Dave Marsh's "Louie Louie" and Kingsmen drummer Dick Peterson's "Louie Louie: Me Gotta Go Now"), an EMP exhibit and numerous tribute Web sites. I have a fondness for "Louie Louie" that dates to my schoolyard days. But the song has been a significant thread winding through my adult life as well. Around 1982, its legacy inspired me to begin trying to establish a repository of local music artifacts called the "Northwest Music Archives." A decade later, I found my dream job, getting hired to help plan what became Seattle's music museum, Experience Music Project. As a senior curator at EMP, I enjoyed the ultimate "Louie Louie" experience of rounding up key artifacts (including gold records, stage apparel, and the long-lost original Fender Stratocaster guitar and studio microphone used to record the Kingsmen's 1963 hit) that anchor the Northwest Passage gallery's exhibits.
But it was as a columnist with The Rocket magazine back in the 1980s that I stumbled across a mystery I've only recently been able to solve. We knew at the time that "Louie Louie" smoldered for years as a regional fetish for Northwest rock fans, and later rocketed to status as a full-blown national, and then global, phenomenon. But the missing historical details — like exactly when and where that firestorm was initially sparked — remained elusive. So in 1983 when I met up with the author of "Louie Louie," Richard Berry, he verified that he'd originally performed the song in Seattle back in the 1950s, but couldn't recall the specific dates or venues he'd played.
Thus began a two-decade quest to determine those facts, recorded in the accompanying timeline — an achievement finally completed in my, our, 50th year.
Happy birthday, "Louie Louie," my timeless old friend.
Peter C. Blecha is a Seattle-based music historian and writer. His books include "TabooTunes: The History of Banned Bands & Censored Songs (Back Beat, 2004), "Rock & Roll Archaeologist" (Sasquatch, 2005) and the upcoming "Northwest Music" (Arcadia, Fall 2007). All contain passages on "Louie Louie."
On the radio
"Louie & the G-Men:" Author Peter C. Blecha will be interviewed on this BBC program at 8:30 p.m. May 22. Access it via the Internet at www.bbc.co.uk/radio2.