Odds are people reading this article have never heard of Jack Ely, but undoubtedly most have sung along with him. Jack Ely, who as singer with the 60s rock group the Kingsmen had a huge hit that became a rock classic – Louie Louie – died Tuesday at 71 years old.
Sean Ely told reporters that his father, the Louie Louie singer Jack Ely, died from an unknown illness. He was at his home in central Oregon, where he trained horses. Because of his religious beliefs, the elder Ely never found out what illness he had.
Louie Louie was not an original recording. The Kingsmen reportedly noticed how much the crowd at a club in Oregon loved dancing to a recording of it on the jukebox between the group’s sets. They began playing the song, which was originally a 1957 Richard Berry piece, in their set. However, they changed the beat and made their rendition even more danceable.
The Kingsmen recorded the song in one take, thinking they would get more in their session, which cost about $50. But that was all it took. The band was not happy with the resulting product, but their management and, ultimately, fans were.
Teenaged Ely had howled the lyrics through the braces on his teeth into a dangling microphone, so the vocals are at times muffled and incoherent. Additionally, his band mates’ enthusiastic three-chord backing made the recording even harder to understand. But, people did not care. The recording was a chart monster for 16 weeks in 1963, establishing itself as a landmark song still heard at stadiums and dances today.
In spite of the massive success, however, Ely was soon forced out of the group. He and a school friend, Lynn Easton, had started playing together and formed The Kingsmen in high school. Easton decided he wanted to become the lead singer right after they recorded Louie Louie. Ely was not happy and quit (he was almost 20 at the time). He tried to form his own group and recorded another version of the hit song, which resulted in a legal battle. In the settlement, Ely could not use the Kingsmen name, but the group had to create him as the lead vocalist on all future pressings of the record (and give him royalties for record sales).
Ely did join a new group and released other records, but was essentially a one-hit wonder. During the Vietnam War, he served in the army, and then battled addictions to drug and alcohol. He gave up music and lived the remainder of his life on his horse farm.
Since Ely did not write the song, he did not get royalties for the continual radio play or the recording’s use in the film Animal House. John Belushi sang it on the soundtrack. Others who have covered Louie Louie include the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean the Troggs, the Beatles, Mothers of Invention, Motörhead and Iggy Pop, but none had the success of Ely’s undecipherable beloved version.
So, next time Louie Louie comes on the air, remember the teenage singer Jack Ely who died today. His only recording with the Kingsmen is truly memorable.
By Dyanne Weiss