RICHARD BERRY STILL REMEMBERS the moment in 1955 when sweet inspiration struck like a sack of dimes. He was 20, waiting to perform at a club in Anaheim, Calif. As he sat in a dressing room, he could hear a Latin group playing for the crowd. “I says, ‘You know, I bet I can write something really great to a Latin beat,’ ” Berry recalls. “And that’s when my mind came upon ‘Louie Louie.’ ”
The next year Berry recorded the song—an innocent tune about a lovesick Jamaican sailor pouring out his heart to a bartender named Louie. The record sold 250,000 copies, then faded away. A year later Berry sold the song rights for $125 to pay for his first wedding. “I didn’t dream that someone else would record it,” says Berry, now 57.
In fact, almost everyone would record it. In 1964, the Kingsmen pounded out a version so unintelligible that fans assumed the words were X-rated. Riding the dirty-lyrics myth, that rendition sold 12 million copies, was banned in Indiana and even prompted an FBI investigation into possible illegal obscenity (none was found).
More “Louies” followed, an estimated 1,200 in all by everyone from San Francisco’s all-female Gutter-sluts to the Rice University Marching Owl Band. Philadelphia staged “Louie Louie” parades, folks in Washington tried to make it their state song (unsuccessfully), and radio stations held “Louie” marathons.
Life proved less kind to Berry, and after a grinding nightclub career he landed on welfare in 1984. Fortunately, a few years earlier he had called Chuck Rubin, a former agent who specializes in recouping lost song rights. In 1985, Rubin regained part ownership of the copyright for Berry, and since then the song has earned over $1 million.
Now twice divorced, Berry lives with his mother in south-central L.A. He has six children, two of whom, Marcel, 28, and Christy, 22, perform with him in the Richard Berry Louie Louie Band. These days, though, with money in the bank, Berry says he has closed the book on all but the best of gigs. “If I don’t think I’m going to have fun doing it, then I’m not going to do it,” he says. “I can be a little eccentric now.”