IN 1959, $750 SEEMED LIKE A LOT to a 24-year-old Los Angeles R&B singer with wedding plans. So Richard Berry sold the publishing rights to a little ditty he had written and recorded three years earlier as the B-side to his first single. "I didn't dream that someone else would record it," he said later.
Someone did—more than 1,200 someones. "Louie Louie," the hypnotically choppy three-chord wonder about a lovesick Jamaican sailor who pours his heart out to the eponymous bartender, became one of the most-recorded tunes in pop history. And while Berry, who died at 61 last week in L.A. of an aortic aneurysm, didn't see royalties for another quarter-century, he never lost his good humor. "It was not in his personality to be bitter," says Dave Marsh, author of a 1993 book on the song, Louie Louie. "He had his moments of anger, but he wasn't consumed by it."
But American pop culture was consumed by his song, and artists from Frank Zappa and Barry White to Julie London and the USC Trojan Marching Band recorded it. Best-known was the Kingsmen's 1963 version: the Portland, Ore., teenagers' demo with quickened tempo and slyly slurred vocals sold over 12 million copies. It also launched a 30-month FBI investigation into its supposedly lascivious lyrics (after many listenings on slowed turntables, the bureau deemed the song "unintelligible at any speed").
If "Louie Louie" became ubiquitous—it inspired an annual parade in Philadelphia and propelled countless frat-party kegathons, including one in Animal House—its creator did not. Berry never had another hit. After decades on the L.A. lounge circuit (he had performed since high school despite a severe limp caused by a childhood hip injury), the twice-divorced singer ended up on welfare. But in 1985, thanks to an assist from Artists Rights Enforcement, a musicians advocacy group, his rights to "Louie Louie" were partly restored. After that, "he fell in love with 'Louie' all over again," says Christy Berry, 28, youngest of his six children. "I don't think he ever got tired of the song. He loved it too much. It was his firstborn child."
On Newsstands Now
- Matthew McConaughey: The Time of My Life!
- 45 Pages of Oscar!
- The Pistorius Trial: Why Did He Kill Her?
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine