The Kingsmen’s take on the song, written by R&B singer Richard Berry in 1955, is considered to be one of the building blocks of the raucous garage rock sound thanks to its shambling, distorted vocals and guitars laid over the original’s cha-cha rhythm.
The band formed in Portland in 1959 as a teenage combo playing high school parties, teen dances and supermarket openings. The group then featured guitarist/singer Jack Ely and his good friend drummer Lynn Easton, who were soon joined by guitarist Mitchell and bassist Bob Nordby, according to an official bio.
Their first single was their legendarily slurry, raw take on “Louie Louie,” backed by the original instrumental, “Haunted Castle.” Despite the band not loving their work, their “Louie” song hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in December 1963, despite a controversy about the practically indecipherable lyrics that got it banned in Indiana and led to an FBI investigation into the band that ended when the bureau properly deemed the record “unintelligible.”
The single made the Kingsmen one of the biggest touring draws in the nation, at one point landing the group two singles and three albums on the charts simultaneously and leading to TV and live gigs with everyone from the Rolling Stones to Dusty Springfield, the Kinks and Zombies.
Mitchell was the last remaining original member of the group, who also landed a top 20 hit with their take on “Money (That’s What I Want)” and a top five hit in 1965 with “The Jolly Green Giant.”
Though they never reached those heights again, the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” remains a cornerstone of garage rock as well as punk thanks to its incessant, primitive beat, Mitchell’s trippy solo and Ely’s unhinged, slurred vocals. Mitchell was the sole original member to remain a part of the lineup for more than 60 years, during which he performed across the country and world with a variety of other performers; Easton passed away in 2020 and Ely died in 2015.
Listen to “Louie Louie” below.