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 2

“Louie Louie” — under investigation by the F.B.I.

Because of its unpolished sound and edgy rhythm and blues, the song already had huge appeal, but questions surrounding the song lyrics fueled its momentum. As the controversy grew, the song was banned on many radio stations, and prohibited entirely in the state of Indiana. Of course, this meant the song was destined to take off in a big way. A concerned parent wrote to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, complaining the lyrics were obscene, and eventually an official inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation was launched. Was “Louie Louie” really corrupting the youth of the day?

J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, said about the song, “[I] strongly believe that the easy accessibility of such material cannot help but divert the minds of young people into unhealthy channels and negate the wholesome training they have already been afforded by their parents.”

Take a moment to consider what’s on the radio today!

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Letter from the FBI Lab, WA DC. 1965. Printed through the Freedom of Information/Privacy Act, section 202-324-5520

The guys had no inkling of how big a deal it was.  Former keyboard player Barry Curtis remembers, “All I knew was, at one point we had two singles and three LPs on the Billboard Chart at the same time, and The Kingsmen were the number one live touring band in the country.” They were on the road constantly and insulated from the outside world. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for them to be booked once, often twice, and sometimes even three times in a day, 330 days of the year. And think of how cool it was for a bunch of teens and early 20s guys from Portland, performing with The Beach Boys, The Zombies, The Dave Clark Five, and The Rolling Stones.

They were earning $4000 a night or $6,000 on double days, so even when considering their manager’s 15 percent; 10 percent for their agents, the prestigious William Morris Agency; and hotels and expenses, they were still making more money than any of them could’ve imagined. But it wasn’t like all of the money was ending up in their pockets. The guys drew salaries and were told the rest was “being put away for their retirement.” For context, during the mid-1960s, the minimum wage was $1.25; the average family income was less than $7,000 per year; and you could fill your gas tank for $5.00. They were having the times of their lives.

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“Jolly Green Giant” recording session, Audio Recording, Seattle—1964 Left to right: Jimmy-John, Lynn, Jerry Dennon, Mike, Karney Barton (engineer) © 2006 Richard Peterson

As their fame and popularity grew, so did the FBI investigation. The Federal agents attended every concert, monitoring the band. In spite of the constant surveillance, the guys weren’t concerned until there came a knock on the door in the middle of one night, with someone saying, “This is the FBI and we are going to talk.” That was when everyone realized, for the first time—they might actually be in some trouble.

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

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

 

The Enduring Legacy of The Kingsmen—Part 4

The Lawsuit That Forever Changed the Music Industry

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “10,000-hour rule,” in his book, Outliers. It describes the volume of experience people accrue to reach a perfected level of expertise. When asked how much time the band spent honing its craft, Peterson thought back. “It wasn’t unusual to play 11 hours a day including performing, practicing and playing around while traveling from gig to gig.” This would mean nearly 20,000 hours over the course of five hard years on the road!

As years passed, band members began to wonder where the money that had been “put away” had gone, and why they weren’t receiving royalties for their songs that were being used and sold. So Peterson filed a lawsuit against the owners of the master recordings to regain ownership of their music. When he filed the suit, it was similar to when they recorded the demo of “Louie Louie”—it was much more important than anyone could have anticipated.

In April of 1998 the judgment in Peterson’s favor was granted. It was groundbreaking. And in November of 1998, the Supreme Court declined an appeal filed by the record companies.  At last, many acts were able to regain ownership of their own master recordings, and it forever changed the way record companies must treat talent.

The lawsuit was huge for the entire music industry. In 2002, also recognizing their mark on rock and roll, The Kingsmen received Lifetime Achievement Awards from The Grammys. Added to their three gold records and countless accolades, it was a great validation. When asked how he felt about Rolling Stone Magazine calling “Louie Louie” the fourth most influential recording of all time, Dick Peterson can’t help but agree, “It is incredibly great.”

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Photo: Current drummer Steve Peterson with Grammy award in his Seattle recording studio © 2010 Steve Peterson

The Kingsmen have been a working band for 52 years, and the guys still rock out every chance they get. Current drummer Steve Peterson (no relation to Dick) says as long as the members continue to breathe, their plan is to keep playing, because they believe there is room for what they do. They won’t attempt to change up their act with the music that’s currently popular, but they’ll continue playing their music, and new music with a ’60s flavor to it.

As for new Kingsmen music, Steve Peterson offers this recap: “There’s nothing in the works, but we’re all writing and producing music for other projects. Dick is working on a soundtrack for a movie; Dennis Mitchell  (younger brother of original and current band member, Mike Mitchell) is writing for The Dennis Mitchell Band; and Barry and I are writing songs for another Seattle band, The Daily Flash. “

And the future of The Kingsmen? “Many of the places we used to play are now using bands from the ’80s instead of the ’60s, so we’re playing less frequently,” says Steve Peterson. “I just hope we can keep playing as long as we can.”

Of those days, Brien Beirne sums it up nicely: “Rock and roll was young, and you should have been there.”

It’s unknown how many versions of “Louie Louie” have been recorded, but according to LouieLouie.net, it’s believed to be more than 1,500.

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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:

© 2010-13 Terri Nakamura

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The Beat Goes On

First of an eight-part series featuring legendary rock band, The Kingsmen

Photo by Raphael during our stay in L.A. shooting ‘How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.’ Pictured L – R: Mike Mitchell, Barry Curtis, Dick Peterson, Lynn Easton, Norm Sundholm

As told by Dick Peterson, The Kingsmen drummer, 1963-present

When I was young, I found everything on the radio influences you.

The Kingsmen started as kind of a “hootenanny” group, with acoustic guitars and a stand-up base. And as that music changed — when the electronic stuff came in; The Ventures and surf music started to take off — then the band got electrified and did that for a while.

When the Wailers became popular in the Northwest and put out an album called “The Fabulous Wailers at the Castle,it became an album that all bands from the day learned. Our band was sort of a butterfly that was being molded by all the influence around it. And then it gained its own recognition — and its own sound.

We recorded the quintessential version of “Louie Louie.” Because of our naiveté with regards to why kids were coming to see us (the lyrics of “Louie Louie” were allegedly obscene), we thought it was comical when the F.B.I. started to investigate us. I was 17 at the time.

I cannot believe we hit the road and had absolutely no clue what we were doing, especially regarding the business. We just had no clue. And the impact that “Louie Louie” was having nationally — we just didn’t even see it. We were playing a different show in a different town night every single night and we were really out of touch except for what people kept saying, you know — “What about the FBI? What about this word? What about that word? What about these lyrics?” We kept denying it. We thought it was funny. It was like, “You think it says WHAT? Are you kidding?” We were the bad boys of rock and roll, but we were naive and innocent.

We were on the road all the time and had to find ways to amuse ourselves. We destroyed a hotel room once, out of fun. It wasn’t because we were drunk or drugged out. No one’s been into that stuff. Our worst moment was, we shot up a hotel room. We had been on the road playing double days for six months—a morning concert in one city and an evening concert in another. It would often be a high school assembly in the afternoon, then a dance in the evening a hundred miles away. We were going crazy and wanted some time off.

We finally got a day off and were in a hotel — a Holiday Inn, actually. It was right across the street from a gun shop. So, someone, I think Jimmy (our road man) bought a dart set. Then it escalated and someone bought a pellet gun. Then it was like, “Let’s open the door and see how far away we can get from that target and still hit it. You couldn’t get very far, but hey! A 22-calibre rifle could shoot from further away! With the doors open and across the parking lot, we wanted to see if we could hit something. We didn’t know it destroyed anything until we went to check it out.

You know those cinder block walls? Yeah, oh boy. When we checked it out and Jimmy removed the target, the only place that was not hit was where the target was. We checked out and left. Our managers called and were angry with us. It cost us a little bit of money to repair things. There was not a sign on the highway that we didn’t hit with a pellet gun, bottles or bottle caps.

When you think of what we were making and how hard we were working, it came to almost $2 million per year. When we decided we weren’t going to play psychedelic music and it was time to leave the road, there was nothing left. Our handlers had taken everything. We had worked really hard for five years and had nothing.

We initiated a lawsuit when we suspected the record company might have victimized us. We knew our recordings were released on other labels and felt we should be receiving royalties, but without management or legal representation, we had no idea how to collect them. We went into the lawsuit not only for the royalties, but with the claim to all rights associated with the master recordings. Winning that case was earth shaking. All sorts of acts have filed and now own their own material. They’re making a fortune. We’re making a lot of money, but the problem is, it’s all going to the attorneys, still. We’re close, though.

It makes me feel great to have Rolling Stone magazine called “Louie Louie” the fourth most influential recording of all time, and I completely agree with them. Beside the cultural significance, I think for anyone who wants to play an instrument, you play “Louie Louie” and you would be encouraged. Here something that’s sold who knows how many millions copies, and it has three chords. Anyone in the world can play it.

We’re one of the few acts of that era that are still performing nationally. The Kingsmen have always just played, not arranged and practiced stuff. You could play the same song 10 times and it would be different each time. We don’t rehearse. We talk about rehearsing. It’s like, someone will say, “Do you know this song? Do you know what key it’s in?” I’ve heard it before and we talk about it and it’s fine. Our attitude is — have fun. •

Above photo © 2006 Richard Peterson

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Dick Peterson joined The Kingsmen in 1963 and has written a book,
“Louie Louie Me Gotta Go Now”

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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