The up and down life of Richard Berry

By Mike Greenblatt

richard-berry-and-the-pharaohs-louie-louie-flip-2THERE IS AN ESTIMATION THAT “LOUIE, LOUIE” has been recorded more than 1,600 times, most notably by The Kingsmen, a garage band out of Portland, Oregon. The very next day, in the very same studio, it was also recorded by Paul Revere & The Raiders out of Boise, Idaho, but their version wasn’t a hit.
     Richard Berry, born in Louisiana on April 11, 1935, and raised in Los Angeles, wrote and originally recorded the song as a calypso when he was a 20-year old piano player in 1955 for a club band called Rick Rillera & The Rhythm Rockers. Rick was leading his Latin-Soul covers combo on “El Loco Cha Cha” by Rene Touzet [1916-2003], a Cuban bandleader. Berry, though, was thinking more about Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” when he wrote the innocuous lyrics that have been so misunderstood the FBI actually investigated the song in an effort to declare it obscene. The investigation went nowhere. Lyrically, Berry told the press decades later that he had Frank Sinatra’s “One For My Baby” in mind.
  

Richard Berry photo courtesy of Ace Records

Richard Berry photo courtesy of Ace Records

  So … written in ’55 on a scroll of toilet paper … recorded in ’57 as the flip side to “You Are My Sunshine,” the song exploded in ’63. Berry made no money, though, because he had sold the rights to the song in 1959 for $750 to pay for his wedding.
     Berry’s career had a lot of ups and downs, mostly downs. He was in The Robins before they became famous as The Coasters. He was with The Flairs whose “She Wants To Rock” was one of the first productions by Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller. His was the uncredited deep bass voice on “The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry)” by Etta James. He was in the back-up band of The Dreamers before they became successful as The Blossoms. In the ‘60s, his own group, The Pharoahs, went nowhere, although his song, “Have Love Will Travel” became a hit for The Sonics. He kept gigging throughout the 1970s while writing songs that had sporadic success for others. One of his compositions, “Crazy Lover,” was on the 1987 debut of The Rollins Band. Problem was, by that time, he was living on welfare at his mother’s house.
     Then, as fate would have it, a company called California Cooler wanted to use The Kingsmen hit as a commercial for their alcoholic beverage but was told they had to get his permission. A lawyer came a’callin’ with a plan to get the rights to his song back … and did so. As a result, Richard Berry became a millionaire.
     He went back out on the road. He recorded a duet with his ex-wife called “The World Needs Peace.” He recorded it a second time as a gospel song re-titled “What We Need” with background vocals from his new wife and his six children.
     In the early ‘90s, “Louie Louie” started getting popular again, being used in movies, television programs and on all kinds of different various-artists compilations. Berry was in his glory, making more money, doing interviews, touring and having a ball. One memorable 1993 gig took place at London’s 100 Club where he was welcomed as a conquering hero. Reuniting with his band, The Pharoahs, for a series of gigs around his Los Angeles home, his last moment of glory took place on the big stage at a benefit concert in Long Beach, California. His health deteriorated after that and he suffered a massive heart attack in Englewood, Calif., on Jan. 23, 1997, at the age of 61.

Berry live onstage, photo courtesy of Ace Records

Berry live onstage, photo courtesy of Ace Records


     Otis Redding, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, Jan & Dean, The Troggs, The Beatles, The Byrds, Frank Zappa, Motorhead, Led Zeppelin, the MC5, Toots & The Maytals, Iggy Pop, The Clash, Blondie, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Grateful Dead, The Doors, Tom Petty, Ike & Tina Turner, Dave Matthews, Johnny Winter, Smashing Pumpkins and Bruce Springsteen & The E Street band have all recorded “Louie, Louie.”
     In 2003, 754 guitarists performed the song in Tacoma, Washington, at the annual “LouieFest.”   

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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