Singer-songwriter Richard Berry, who penned one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enduring and enigmatic anthems in “Louie Louie,” died in his sleep Jan. 23 in the same house in South Central Los Angeles where he had been living and writing songs for 40 years. He was 61.
Rock critic Dave Marsh, who wrote a book in 1993 about the song, said it had been recorded more than 1,200 times in every musical style, from surf to reggae to punk.
“It is the best of songs, it is the worst of songs. A rock ‘n’ roll song, a calypso song, a sea shanty, a filthy, dirty, obscene song, the story of rock ‘n’ roll in a nutshell, the most ridiculous piece of junk in the history of damnation,” he wrote.
“Louie Louie,” with its almost unintelligible lyrics and infectious beat, became a standard for hundreds of nascent rock bands. It has even been adopted by school and college marching bands in the years since the Kingsmen’s version became America’s “No. 1 party song” in 1963.
The cryptic lyrics of the two-minute, 13-second record even prompted the FBI to investigate Berry because of a public impression that it was obscene.
After explaining that the song was about a Jamaican sailor telling a bartender, Louie, about his girlfriend and that he’s “really got to go,” the federal agents concluded the song was “indecipherable at any speed.”
Berry wrote the song in 1957, but it was the Kingsmen’s version that became a big hit. Family members told the Los Angeles Times that he wrote it on several sheets of toilet paper after hearing a tune with a similar Latin beat.
He sold the rights for a few hundred dollars to pay for his wedding and spent the next 25 years struggling to make a living as a musician. He spent some time on welfare before returning to college in the 1980s to earn a degree in computer science.
In 1985 Berry finally won a legal battle for the rights to the song, and he spent the past decade touring and promoting “Louie Louie” and other songs he wrote for such performers as Etta James and the Coasters.
His daughter Christy recalled that whenever fans asked her father for the lyrics of “Louie Louie,” he would laugh and reply: “If I told you the words, you wouldn’t believe them anyway.”
Berry is survived by his mother and five children.