JFK and Louie Louie in November 1963
by Alex Cosper (11/20/13)

See Music the Week of the JFK Assassination

November 2013 marks the 50 year anniversary of two separate events that would forever change history and have stayed in people's minds ever since. President John F. Kennedy was tragically assassinated on November 22, 1963 while "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen was becoming a huge national hit.

(left: JFK painting by Alex Cosper, 1977)

Politcal power changed hands to President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose first action was to reverse Kennedy's policies on Vietnam as LBJ halted JFK's order to bring "advisors" home from Vietnam. Within a year an event called "The Gulf of Tonkin Incident" in which a U.S. submarine was allegedly bombed, led to the escalation of the Vietnam War. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later admitted that the Gulf of Tonkin incident actually never happened.

Although President Kennedy was young and aware of rock and roll music, it's not known if he ever got to hear "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen, a record that was very different from the rest of the pop music at the time. It was an era of crooners, as early rock and roll had fallen off the charts since the late fifties, although some may argue that "The Twist" craze of 1960 through 1962 or the emerging surf craze spearheaded by The Ventures and The Beach Boys are equally as important as Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry. Still, most of the hits on the Billboard charts in November 1963 leaned toward the softer side of pop.

The number one song the week JFK died was the peppy crooner duet "I'm Leaving It Up To You" by Dale and Grace, which replaced "Deep Purple" by crooners Nino Tempo and April Stevens. Coincidentally, Dale Houston was one of the last people to wave at the President before he was shot in Dallas. Dale retired to his hotel room and didn't find out until hours later that Kennedy had been killed. The following week Dale and Grace remained at number one then were bumped off the top by "Dominique" by the Singing Nun, which held on to the top position for four weeks throughout December.

For the week ending November 23 the Kingsmen single was #41. The next week it jumped to #23. In the first week of December it made another big jump to #5 then was #2 the following week but it never got any higher on the Billboard Hot 100. It stayed in the top 3 for seven weeks and was blocked out of the top position by "Dominique" then "There, I've Said It Again" by Bobby Vinton, which after four weeks at the top was knocked out by "I Want To Hold Your Hand," the first number one hit by The Beatles. "Louie Louie" did, however, make #1 on the Cashbox chart, which was one of Billboard's competitors.

What's interesting is hardly anyone from the next generation remembers or has even heard of the Singing Nun or Bobby Vinton songs, yet everyone has heard "Louie Louie." The song has been covered by many artists since then, but the Kingsmen version is still the most popular even though the group only had a handful of other lesser known hits. They toured with the Rolling Stones and other big acts and then faded by the mid sixties, yet their classic recording of "Louie Louie" has never died.

Set to a Jamaican beat, the song was written by Richard Berry in the 1950s and was a minor R&B hit in 1957. The Kingsmen recorded their version in April 1963, the same month that Paul Revere & The Raiders recorded their version at the exact same studio in Portland. Both singles were released in June 1963, but the Paul Revere version never even made the Hot 100. The group later learned that their A&R exec at Columbia Records, Mitch Miller, didn't want to promote the record because he hated rock and roll. Meanwhile, the Kingsmen were on a small independent label called Wand, owned by the first woman label president named Florence Greenberg, who had started the label as a subsidiary of Scepter Records in 1961. She also signed The Isley Brothers and later became a producer for Dionne Warwick, The Shirelles and B.J. Thomas.

Due to nonpayment of royalties from Gusto, which bought out Wand, the Kingsmen were awarded complete ownership of their recordings made for Wand Records. According to singer Jack Ely, the band's investment in the recording of "Louie, Louie" had just been fifty bucks (each member put in $10). Since its initial chart run "Louie Louie" has become a rock standard, covered by many artists, including The Clash, The Pretenders, Blondie and Iggy Pop.

Part of the song's mystique is that the lyrics were investigated by the FBI, who had received complaints that the lyrics contained profanity, but the bureau eventually concluded that the words of Ely's vocals were too slurred to figure out. Despite the fact that the recording was banned by several radio stations in the sixties, according to it has sold over 12 million copies while over a thousand other covers of the song have sold over 300 million units.

Like "Louie Louie," JFK came from a background that was independent of the system he worked in. He represented change the same way the Kingsmen record did. The Kingsmen record broke the rules of slick recording and included musical mistakes such as a timing error in which Jack Ely starts singing too early after the lead solo. But the band kept the mistake in their one take recording and it helped define garage rock, which didn't have to follow rules. JFK was independent because he didn't want to go along with the war industry's system that President Eisenhower called "the military industrial complex" in which defense contractors look for reasons to start wars so they can get big contracts from the government.

The JFK assassination and the Kingsmen hit are similar in at least two other respects: censorship and an FBI investigation. While the song was banned by radio stations for supposed obscene lyrics, the mainstream media failed to report on all the flaws of the Warren Commission that didn't add up, such as ignoring over 50 witnesses who claimed to see smoke or heard shots from the "Grassy Knoll" area in front of the presidential limo. They also failed to explain why the first rifle found in the Texas School Book Despository building was a German Mauser, not the cheap Italian Mannlicher-Carcano with a crooked scope that the commission said was used by the assassin. The commission really didn't do any investigation at all other than to cherry-pick the findings of the FBI, which also investigated the lyrics of "Louie Louie."

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