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Tampa FBI agents helped turn ‘Louie Louie’ into legend

— Tampa kept the local FBI office busy during the 1960s.

The Ku Klux Klan was rallying against the Civil Rights movement.

Fidel Castro’s Communist government had supporters here.

The local mafia was among the most powerful in the nation.

And both Castro and the mafia were suspected in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, shot to death just days after leaving Tampa in November 1963.

Still, agents at the Tampa FBI office managed to find time in February 1964 to spend hours each day listening to a version of the song “Louie Louie” recorded by the Portland, Oregon, band The Kingsmen.

Not because they were fans.

Rather, they were charged with figuring out whether the lyrics were profane, a violation of federal law at the time.

“Looking back, it’s funny,” said Dick Peterson of The Kingsmen. “But the FBI was serious. They wanted to prove the song was dirty and they wanted to punish us for it. Even funnier of course is there was nothing dirty about it.”

“Louie Louie” celebrates its 60th birthday this year.

In 1955, the late Los Angeles doo-wop and R&B musician Richard Berry was inspired to write the innocent calypso-style love ballad about a Jamaican sailor returning to the island to see the woman he loved.

Today, “Louie Louie” is recognized as the most recorded rock song of all time.

But if not for The Kingsmen version, with lyrics so garbled they’re indistinguishable, the song might never have broken into the mainstream of pop culture.

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When news spread that the Tampa FBI was investigating the lyrics, rebellious youths of the 1960s assumed the words were profane and turned “Louie Louie” into an anthem in their protest against a controlling government.

Band members Peterson and Mike Mitchell still perform “Louie Louie” as The Kingsmen.

They haven’t been to Tampa since the 1980s, but Peterson — the drummer — said he will always have a soft spot for the city that inadvertently made him famous.

“There is no way the band would have been this big without that controversy,” he said. “The song sounded horrible but the investigation turned it and our band into a huge success.”

Songwriter Berry was equally thankful, said Yank Barry, a former member of The Kingsmen.

“He was aware of the controversy and thought it was funny,” Barry said. “And then he thought it was even funnier when he was handed a check for millions of dollars.”

Berry recorded the song with his band The Pharaohs in 1957, to soft melodious Caribbean music in a voice clear enough to understand simple romantic lines such as, “Three nights and days I sail the sea. Think of girl, all constantly. On that ship I dream she’s there. I smell the rose in her hair.”

The song became a hit in the west, Peterson said, but nothing more.

The Kingsmen, then a little known garage band in Portland, were among the song’s fans and decided to add it to their repertoire with louder and more upbeat music behind it.

In mid-1963, The Kingsmen paid a studio $36 to record “Louie Louie” and two other songs — enough to get just one take of each.

They had little experience at recording and had performed the night before so lead singer Jack Ely was hoarse.

What’s more, the microphone was too far away from Ely and the band played louder than it should have.

Thus, only the song’s title “Louie Louie” could be clearly understood.

Boston radio DJ Arnie “Woo-Woo” Ginsburg, whose show was syndicated around the country, had a weekly segment called, “The Worst Record of the Week.” It pitted two songs against one another in a call-in vote for the dubious distinction, with the winner returning to defend its title the following week.

“Our version of ‘Louie Louie’ was victorious week after week,” Peterson said.

The song got so much play it developed a cult following that propelled it into the Billboard Top 10 in October 1963.

By December, it began to slide back down the charts into obscurity.

Then the scandal that followed in 1964 gave the song new life.

As fans tried to guess the lyrics, high school and college students came up with dirty versions that included four-letter words and descriptions of sexual encounters.

Some of the more creative versions, Peterson said, somehow spread and were believed to be true.

Parents wanted the song banned from the airwaves, noting that profane songs violated the federal Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material law.

The governor of Indiana prohibited playing it on radio stations in his state.

“Pretty soon we were getting calls from kids from places like Alabama who tracked down our number asking us if we were the band who recorded the song with the filthy words,” Peterson said.

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A teacher in Sarasota wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy asking him for a national ban.

“Who do you turn to when your teenage daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene material being sold ... in every city, village and record shop in this nation?” the letter reads.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had the album sent for evaluation to his Tampa region, which included Sarasota.

“This was 1963,” said Barry, the former Kingsman. “Shows like ‘Father Knows Best” were on television where the parents wore pajamas to bed that covered all their skin and they had to keep one leg on the floor. People were prudes. There was free love and all of that, but television and radio was very conservative.”

The FBI caught up with The Kingsmen at a concert in Boston, member Peterson said, and the band denied the song was dirty. They even sent the real lyrics later to the Tampa office.

“We were innocent, but we were scared to death,” Peterson said. “We were teenage kids and had the FBI on us.”

Still, they kept singing “Louie Louie” in the garbled manner their fans had come to expect.

The FBI, Peterson said, continued to attend their shows.

“It became a game to try to point them out in the audience,” he said. “In the middle of a crowd made up of girls wearing hip-huggers and boys in corduroy there would be gray-haired guys in gray suits taking notes on what they thought we were singing.”

According to FBI archives, Tampa’s FBI agents tried to figure out what The Kingsmen were singing by slowing the record down. It was still unclear.

They even tried playing the song backward.

In March 1964, the Tampa FBI office released the statement saying it was ending its investigation because no one had been able to decipher the complete lyrics to “Louie Louie.”

Kids around the country celebrated a victory against the government.

The Kingsmen had gotten away with it, these rebels thought — freedom of speech ruled the day.

Other FBI branches also tried unsuccessfully to prove the song pornographic.

The case was officially closed in May 1965, according to FBI archives.

Today, due to the popularity it attained during the investigation, Louie Louie is believed to be the most covered song of all time with more than 1,500 renditions performed by different acts.

In 1995, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”

And in 2007 “Rolling Stone Magazine” listed it as one of the “40 Songs That Changed The World.”

“What is funny is that nowadays even the most offensive of the made up lyrics wouldn’t be considered controversial,” Peterson said. “You can say a whole lot worse on the radio today.

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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