Way Down Low

How a Sarasota Educator Got the FBI to Investigate the Lyrics of a Rock Song

"‘Louie Louie’ leaped up the chart on the basis of a myth about its lyrics so contagious that it swept cross country quicker than bad weather.”

By Craig Pittman August 25, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Between the president firing the director and the ongoing investigation of potential Russian interference in the 2016 election, the FBI has been all over the front page lately. Here’s hoping this current controversy has a more satisfying conclusion than one that happened 50 years ago and involved a Sarasota connection.

The year was 1964. The upheavals characteristic of the ’60s—assassinations, protest marches, the loosening of sexual mores—were just getting started. One Sarasota educator was sure he knew who was to blame.

A band called The Kingsmen.

The Kingsmen were one of several raucous rock bands that formed in the Pacific Northwest in the early ’60s. The best-known was Paul Revere & the Raiders. They all played songs that tended to be fast and loud and party-oriented. It wasn’t unusual for several bands to record the same song.

Thus, in 1961, a Seattle band called Rockin’ Robin Roberts and the Wailers cut a speeded-up version of a rhythm and blues tune called “Louie Louie,” and then in 1963, The Kingsmen and Paul Revere & the Raiders both cut singles of the same number. The original version of “Louie Louie” was written and performed by Richard Berry, who also recorded the original version of “Money (That’s What I Want),” later covered by the Beatles. In Berry’s version, “Louie Louie” was a Caribbean-flavored tune about a homesick sailor pining for his girlfriend.

But when The Kingsmen got hold of it, it became something duh-duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh-duh different. Or so the rumor went.

“Back in 1963, everybody who knew anything about rock ‘n’ roll knew that The Kingsmen’s ‘Louie Louie’ concealed dirty words that could be unveiled only by playing the 45-rpm single at 33-1/3,” rock critic Dave Marsh later wrote in his book about the song. “This preposterous fable bore no scrutiny even at the time, but kids used to pretend it did, in order to panic parents, teachers and other authority figures. …So ‘Louie Louie’ leaped up the chart on the basis of a myth about its lyrics so contagious that it swept cross country quicker than bad weather.”

Somebody somewhere along the line jotted down the “dirty” lyrics. The homesick sailor now sang about having sex with his girlfriend. Instead of “Louie Louie, me gotta go,” it was “Louie Louie, grab her way down low.” Everything went downhill from there—the f-word showed up, among other things.

Lascivious “Louie Louie” lyric sheets were soon being passed around, hand to hand, in the nation’s schools—and then one landed in the hands of a particularly touchy Sarasota educator.

Everything we know about him is contained in an FBI file that the agency has posted online. The file contains his letter of complaint—his name is redacted—and all the subsequent reports from FBI agents.

The educator had a teenage daughter. She bought the record and brought it home. Soon after, her agitated parent typed out an angry epistle to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy dated Jan. 30, 1964—two weeks before the long-haired Beatles debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show.

“Dear Mr. Kennedy,” the educator wrote. “Who do you turn to when your teen-age daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials?”

The governor of Indiana had banned the song from Hoosier radio stations, noted the letter writer, so he “proceeded to try to decipher the jumble of words.” However, he declared in his letter, “The lyrics are so filthy I cannot enclose them in this letter.”

He wrote that he wanted everyone involved prosecuted for distributing obscenity to impressionable children.

““We all know there is obscene materials available for those who seek it, but when they start sneaking in this material in the guise of the latest teenage rock & roll hit record, these morons have gone too far,” the educator wrote. “This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation what with this record, the biggest hit movies and the sex and violence exploited on T.V. How can we stamp out this menace???”

The biggest hit movie that week, by the way, was Disney’s animated The Sword in the Stone, and the top TV show was The Beverly Hillbillies.

The Justice Department took his complaint seriously. The FBI launched an official investigation into “Louie Louie.” They wanted to see if it violated the laws against ITOMM—“Interstate Transportation of Obscene Materials.”

The first step: Send an agent from the Tampa FBI office to interview the person who complained.

The agent reported to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that the complainant worked at Sarasota High School and that “Louie Louie” is “very popular with high school students, and he has been furnished lyrics for the song that are very dirty.” Just listening to the record, the man said, “the words are hard to recognize,” but by referring to the dirty lyrics “it sounds like the lyrics are identical with the enclosed obscene lyrics.”

The agent included the lyric sheet with his report to the director.

Yes, an FBI agent sent dirty lyrics to J. Edgar—in a special envelope marked “Obscene.”

Hoover soon dispatched agents to question The Kingsmen, Richard Berry, Paul Revere & the Raiders and record company executives. FBI laboratory technicians played the song at every conceivable setting. They—and the Federal Communications Commission, which joined the case—spent 31 months pursuing the “Louie Louie” rumor. Their ultimate conclusion? The song was unintelligible at any speed.

The one person the feds did not interview was the guy who sang the song. His name was Jack Ely, and he had left The Kingsmen to join the Army before their record became a hit.

Had they questioned Ely, they would have learned that on the day the band recorded “Louie Louie,” the microphone he sang into was hanging from the ceiling much higher than it should have been. Ely had to stand on tiptoe and tilt his head back, an awkward position for singing. He had strained his voice during a performance the night before. And during the recording, to get more of a “live” sound, his band mates stood around him in a circle, playing their instruments as loudly as possible. Hence his half-shouted, half-gargled performance.
“Was there anything dirty in it?” an interviewer asked Ely in 2012.

“Not a thing,” Ely replied.

The FBI files do not record whether anyone ever informed the outraged Sarasota educator of the inconclusive conclusion of the investigation, so we don’t know his reaction. Sadly, his identity remains lost to history. The members of the Sarasota High Class of ‘64 whom I have interviewed couldn’t say who it might have been. One remembered that The Kingsmen drew a good-sized crowd when they played at Sarasota’s National Guard Armory—no complaints or protests.

Class of ‘64 grad Jeff LaHurd, a local historian, recalled “Louie Louie” being a popular song but, like his classmates, he can’t remember any teachers who seemed upset about it. As for the song, he laughed and said, “That song is probably one of the minor reasons the country has gone down the tubes!”

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