Richard Berry & The Pharaohs - Louie Louie
‘Louie Louie’?!?!? You say, eyes rolling in disbelief…. Well, this ain’t the Kingsmen my friend. This is the OG, that shockingly enough most people have never heard (due in large part to it being almost completely unavailable as a reissue, not to mention the fact that the cancerous scourge of the airwaves “oldies radio” operates as if Richard Berry never existed…). I’ve preferred Berry’s original since I heard it years ago, and even then it took me a few years to track it down on CD (via a Swedish reissue). Richard Berry was part of the Los Angeles R&B scene in the 50’s. In addition to his own recordings (with the Pharaohs), which are thoroughly rocking and well worth tracking down, he appeared (uncredited) as the lead voice on the Robins original version of ‘Riot In Cell Block #9’ (who would later become the Coasters) and as the male voice in Etta James ‘Roll With Me Henry’. His 1956 recording of “Louie Louie” was a minor West Coast hit, but fell into obscurity until it was unearthed (and gassed up) by a number of Northwest rock bands, including Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Wailers, the Sonics, and of course the Kingsmen who would ride the tune into the ground, remaking it numerous times in their “career”. It’s also important to note (on the Northwest rock tip) that Berry also wrote and recorded the original version of ‘Have Love Will Travel”, which the Sonics re-did, and is now being featured in – of all places – a Land Rover commercial. Nothing like the spirit of rock and roll being pimped out to sell $50,000 luxury shitheaps…. Anyway…the Kingsmen had a huge hit with the tune, starting all manner of insane controversy (not unlike the kind of crap we deal with all the time here in the Bush era) and for all intents and purposes relegated Mr. Berry to the dustbin of history. The first time I had any inkling whatsoever that ‘Louie Louie’ wasn’t the sole purvey of screaming frat rockers, was strangely enough in a movie theater in 1973, when I first saw American Graffiti. The band in the movie ‘Herbie & The Heartbeats’ (actually Flash Cadillac & The Continental Kids, a post-Sha Na Na 50’s retro act) played ‘Louie Louie’ in a strange, slower tempo than I had ever heard (and believe me, even at the age of 11 ‘Louie Louie’ was already imprinted on my brain…). I was intrigued, but alas, I was but a penniless child, living in a pre-internet informational void….. Many years later (probably on a college station) I finally heard Richard Berry & the Pharaoh’s rocking ‘Louie Louie’ and the light went off over my head, the dots were connected and the world was once again at peace (at least it was from where I was sitting). My quest began from there, and as I said, it took me years to track it down. The version on the Rhino ‘Louie Louie’ comp was a rerecording (I suspect this was due to the fact that Berry no longer owned the rights to the original recording, or the song for that matter...), and it wasn’t showing up anywhere else. In the interim I did manage to pick up a Japanese* import of 50’s LA R&B from the Modern label, which included some other Berry/Pharaohs tracks as well as a few other tracks indicative of the high quality stuff being cranked out in those environs at the time, i.e. Young Jessie’s “Mary Lou” (later covered by Ronnie Hawkins) and the Cadets ‘Stranded In The Jungle’ (later covered by the NY Dolls), providing a cool snapshot of the LA scene. When I finally did find a comp of Berry’s early stuff it was a gas. Aside from ‘Louie Louie’ and ‘Have Love Will Travel’ there were a bunch of other rocking R&B cuts that while not earth shattering (or likely to rocket Berry to the first string of early rockers) were of high quality. Berry’s original ‘Louie Louie’, with the bass singer laying down the famous “duh-duh-duh duh-duh” riff breaks out into an almost swinging tempo. Berry’s lead is shadowed by the Pharaohs harmonies, all laid out on a bed of piano, drums and sax. The beat is much more conducive to dancing than the various garage-punk versions and a tune known to most as an unintelligible, head-banger is revealed to possess heretofore unknown levels of sophistication and cool. While it seems unlikely that Berry’s version will ever undergo a serious enough “rediscovery” to supplant the Kingsmen in the public consciousness (and maybe it shouldn’t), hearing the original (forcibly divorced from it’s R&B roots by time and circumstance more than 40 years ago) restores to the tune much of it’s “blackness”.
Anyway...I recently scored a copy of the 45, and decided to share the wealth.
Fortunately, Ace Records in the UK has just reissued a bunch of Berry’s recordings for the Flip label (and some rarities) and you can grab it at Amazon. Do so now. You will not regret it. *And how sad is it that we have to go through Sweden and Japan to get our rock'n'roll roots????