The Enduring Legacy of The Kingsmen—Part 1

At the time, they didn’t know it would change the music world, and their lives, forever.

Interviewing current and former Kingsmen members Dick Peterson, Steve Peterson and Barry Curtis, as well as Hollywood Walk of Fame DJ, Brien Bierne, wasn’t just fascinating—it was fun. They talked to me about The Kingsmen, “Louie Louie,” and how it all began more than 50 years ago.

Francis Ford Coppola once said art depends on luck and talent. For the legendary Kingsmen, it involved luck and talent, but timing as well. Dick Peterson, one of the band’s early drummers, is quick to admit The Kingsmen’s rocket to fame was the result of the perfect musical storm.

In the early 1960s, rockabilly stars from the 1950s were still churning out hits. But the early 1960s also ushered in new and eclectic sounds ranging from novelty songs to musical styles including folk, doo wop, rhythm and blues, surf and Motown. Of that time, Peterson, “The fan focus was shifting from individuals like Elvis, Fabian and Frankie Avalon to an era of bands.’”

As the musical scene was evolving, former disc jockey Brien Beirne, sees one event as a major catalyst. “In fall of ’63 when The Kingsmen came out with ‘Louie Louie,’ a very interesting thing happened that I think changed everything musically,” he reflects. “It was the death of President John F. Kennedy. Everybody was looking for an escape. It was such a horrific, devastating moment, and I believe it opened the door to lots of new sounds. The Kingsmen were part of the wave that represented escapism for the youth of the day.”

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Louie Louie 45 RPM © 2006 Richard Peterson

So, in April 1963, when five young guys in Portland, Oregon, recorded an audition tape to land a gig on a cruise ship, they were unprepared for what was about to come.

The Kingsmen’s version of “Louie Louie” was popular in the Portland area, where it enjoyed cross-pollination by local KISN AM rock DJ, Ken Chase. Chase also financed the $36 needed to produce the demo destined to become the iconic hit single, and hosted The Kingsmen as the house band in his teen nightclub, The Chase. Beirne, who was a teenager in the Portland area at the time, remembers it being such a hot ticket “that it didn’t matter how many pimples you had—if you could get a table for you and your date at The Chase, you were ‘golden’ for the evening.”

The band enjoyed success and played packed houses, but it wasn’t until Boston’s most popular DJ, Arnie Ginsburg, aired the song as “The Worst Record of the Week,” that “Louie Louie” experienced a meteoric surge in popularity. The reason? Unintelligible lyrics had teenagers imagining the words were laced with profanities and descriptions of sexual acts!

They didn’t realize the poor sound recording would be a critical factor in the song’s appeal, but several things came into play:

  • Jack Ely, the lead singer on the recording, had just had his braces adjusted and his mouth was in pain;
  • The sound engineer refused to move any of the microphones nearer to Ely, impacting the clarity of the lyrics; and
  • The band had not tightly rehearsed, which opened the door to spontaneity.

The ambiguous lyrics, the rough sound and energy, and the luck of having Ginsburg spin the song when he did was pure genius, but unplanned. Peterson laughs, “It was very fortunate. Without the controversy, I think The Kingsmen’s version of ‘Louie Louie’ would’ve died.”

To be continued…

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Terri Nakamura is a professional graphic designer who loves social media, music and writing.  Follow her on Twitter: @terrinakamura; Read her blog, Confessions of a Graphic Designer: http://seattledesigner.blogspot.com/ or find her connections: http://about.me/terrinakamura

© 2010-13 Terri Nakamura

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The Enduring Legacy of The Kingsmen—Part 3

“Louie Louie” — Unintelligible at “any speed”

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The Kingsmen lion logo © 2006 Richard Peterson

After 31 months, it ended in a Federal Communications Commission hearing. There were two possible outcomes.

The first was finding for the plaintiffs. If the song was ruled as obscene, there could be dire consequences for the band. The record would be banned and possibly The Kingsmen could be subjected to fines or worse. Finding for the plaintiffs could’ve also implicated the recording label for engaging in transporting obscene material across state lines.

Or, the judge could find for the defendants.

After listening to the song at every speed, the judge still couldn’t hear anything with certainty. Considering the lack of FBI evidence, and relying on his own ears, he ruled the song “unintelligible at any speed,” and lifted the ban.

The verdict was a triumph because “Louie Louie” began climbing the charts once again, with all rumors about the alleged raunchy lyrics intact. The guys capitalized on the situation under the guise of, “Hey, we got away with it!”

In the spring of 1964, The Kingsmen were touring with the likes of Dionne Warwick, Chad and Jeremy, Peter and Gordon, and famed DJ “Murray the K, aka ‘the Fifth Beatle’” (Murray Kaufman). They were on top of the world. And they were guests on popular shows including American Bandstand, Shindig, Hullabaloo and in the film, “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini,” starring the heartthrob of boys across the U.S., Annette Funicello.

When the British Invasion hit in 1964, its music shared the airwaves with American bands, and instead of being seen as competition, their music was appreciated by everyone, including The Kingsmen, who by then were like ambassadors of American rock. But when the ”psychedelic era” hit mid-decade, the new musical expression reflected a seismic shift in society and culture.

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Actual schedule hand-written by Murray Kaufman, posted backstage for Easter Extravaganza, March 1964 © 2006 Richard Peterson

The decade ended with Woodstock. By that time the guys recognized they weren’t “what’s happening,” and though their popularity waned, their music continued to influence other bands of the day, even laying the groundwork for the “garage band sound.”

Curtis muses, “It all starts somewhere. We were all influenced by other people. It wasn’t so much that we influenced established bands, but we influenced a lot of local bands. Young bands today—they just keep that whole thing going.”

To be continued…

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Terri Nakamura is a professional graphic designer who loves social media, music and writing.  Follow her on Twitter: @terrinakamura; Read her blog, Confessions of a Graphic Designer: http://seattledesigner.blogspot.com/ or find her connections: http://about.me/terrinakamura

© 2010-13 Terri Nakamura

 

Memories of a DJ

ImageThird of an eight-part featuring the legendary rock group, The Kingsmen

Brian Beirne, “Mr. Rock ‘N Roll,” Reminisces

My dad took me to a radio station when I was 10, and I watched a guy spin the records, cue them up and talk about them. Elvis had just hit and was the rage of the day, and of course all of us kids wanted to pick up a guitar and be the next Elvis Presley. I played piano and guitar, but once I watched the guy in the studio, that was it.

I was a record collector from the time I was four. The magic words for me were, “Hey kid, see the records underneath the console? When we get done with them on the playlist, we get to take them home. And I thought “Wow, this is great. I’d get to play the records on the radio, talk about the artist, physically handle the records, and then I’d get FREE records!”

What’s interesting is, when my dad passed away several years ago, I opened the family trunk and saw my birth announcement. It was a baby holding a microphone. It was prophetic. Blew me away. I guess that was my calling. And I enjoyed every day I was on the radio in my 40+ years, and of course I got to meet great people along the way—got to have them on my radio shows wherever I was in the country—got to work with them, book them on shows, hang out with them and have fun. It was a fabulous career.

It was the “Golden Age of Rock,” and to a great degree, the second golden age of radio. We had freedom as disc jockeys. Today it is extremely controlled. You’re given a playlist. You’re told don’t talk over so many seconds, don’t do this, don’t do that. Back then, the personality of the DJ was really important. Now people seem very interchangeable. It was an exciting time to be on the radio. It really was.

When I got into radio, stations were owned by “moms and pops.” There were only a few major companies that owned radio stations, and there were restrictions—you could only own so many AM and FM stations, and so many television stations. I think there was a lot of freedom in the industry. Disc jockeys were stars. We were talent. We had a following like celebrities. It was exciting, too, because somebody would walk in the door that afternoon and say, “Hey, we’re The Kingsmen, and we have a brand-new record out, and do you want to give it a spin?”

I started in radio by accident when I was 13. I hung around the radio station from the time I was 10. Three days a week I’d take the bus there after school. I’d hang around and watch the guys, get them coffee, pull their records, and they would teach me the ropes.

One evening there was a live broadcast from the YWCA. Though I was shy, I’d go and hang around with the DJs. About a half hour into the broadcast, the jock said, “I’m sick. I’m going home. You take it.” And I said, “What do you mean, ‘me take it? I’m a 13-year-old kid!’” And he said, “You know how to run this!” So, the next thing I knew, I was on the radio. That lasted until my mother thought I actually was going to find girls down there at the radio station and put the kibosh on it. I went back into radio full time when I was about 17 and moved around the country to various cities. I was working in a major market by the time I was 21 and eventually settled in Los Angeles for 29 years at The Earth 101.

When The Kingsmen started to hit big I was 17. I remember when they recorded the live album at The Chase. I was on the air and the guys came by with a new record—they were always trying to crack me up, and I remember all of them, probably led by Mike Mitchell, when I opened the mike, they were in the production room across from me, all mooning me at the same time. In those days we had to read a five-minute newscast at the top of the hour, even Top-40 stations. I’d find myself reading the newscast and these guys are mooning me across the way to see if they could break me up. We had a lot of good times and I think that whole sound they produced at that time with “Money,” “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” “Jolly Green Giant,” were all really, as I said, not a polished sound, but it was exciting. It was new.

So many great memories and it all happened so fast, because right after that I started to do a lot of package shows that had five to 10 acts together. One day The Dave Clark Five are on your radio show, the next day it’s The Mamas and The Papas, then The Kingsmen drop by with a new record—it was kind of a whirlwind—the experiences and people I met during that period of time.

In terms of most amazing moment, there wasn’t a particular event, but more like the cumulative experience of being in that business at that point in time. Lots of exciting things happened. The Kingsmen were swell people and it was wonderful to be a part of their career at that time.

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Terri Nakamura is a professional graphic designer who loves social media, music and writing. Follow her on Twitter: @terrinakamura; Read her blog, Confessions of a Graphic Designer: http://seattledesigner.blogspot.com/ or find her connections on xeeme: http://xeeme.com/terrinakamura
© 2010-12 Terri Nakamura