Jack Ely, the former singer of the Kingsmen and the most famous voice behind the garage-rock hit “Louie Louie,” has died in his home in Richmond, Oregon. The singer’s son, Sean, confirmed his father’s death to The Associated Press, saying the musician had long been suffering from an unspecified illness; because of Jack’s religious beliefs, the family does not know what it was. He was 71.
Ely co-founded the Kingsmen in 1959, with the group recording its cover of Richard Berry’s 1957 tune “Louie Louie” for $52 and releasing it in 1963. The song, as Berry wrote it, told the story of a sailor on his way back to Jamaica to reunite with his love. But because Ely had howled the lyrics into an awkwardly dangling microphone – coupled with his bandmates’ raucous, three-chord racket – his vocals sounded muffled and led to confusion as to what words he actually sang. The song became a Number Two hit and stayed on the charts for 16 weeks.
The FBI, believing Ely’s words to be pornographic, launched an investigation into the tune and concluded that the vocals were “unintelligible at any speed.” The Feds eventually compiled a 455-page report on the single, of which Sean told The AP Jack got “quite the kick” out of. He also said Jack knew the words and was not muttering not-so-sweet nothings into the microphone. “I always thought the controversy was record-company hype,” Ely once told Rolling Stone.
The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the Troggs, the Sonics, the Beatles, Mothers of Invention, Motörhead, Black Flag and Iggy Pop all recorded covers of “Louie Louie” after the Kingsmen version.
Jack left the Kingsmen, who are still active, shortly after the single came out. He later formed a rival group, the Courtmen – who recorded their own “Louie Louie ’66” – and later a group called Jack E. Lee and the Squires, who released a single titled “Love That Louie.”
Sean said that his father later trained horses in central Oregon, content with being a one-hit wonder.