Stand by Me, Louie Louie, and Other Great Songs

Ben E. King album covers

Stand by Me, Louie Louie,
and Other Great Songs
| published May 3, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

Sometimes a great song—no matter how many records it sold in its original heyday—gets a chance at a second life. And generationally-speaking, that second life can have an equally powerful effect on how we react to that classic song.

Two cases in point culled from the recent news; two obituaries for the vocalists of great rock and roll and classic R&B:

The song “Stand by Me,” originally performed by the intensely liquid baritone voice of Ben E. King, was first released in 1961, when John F. Kennedy was President and before the Beatles had emerged from the nightclub shadows. The song, written by Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, shot to the Top Ten within weeks of its release, and reached number four on the U.S. charts. It was released the same year as “Spanish Harlem,” another King favorite.

More than 25 years later, “Stand by Me” again reached Number One in the United States and the United Kingdom in tandem with the enormous popularity of the movie of the same name. Released in the summer of 1986, the film Stand by Me starred four youthful actors—Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell—and featured the voiceover of Richard Dreyfus, who also has a cameo at the end of the film. Based on the novella by Stephen King, and directed by Rob Reiner, the coming-of-age story was transformative, an instant classic and a huge box office success. The film was shot on the relatively low budget of $7.9 million, but earning a U.S. box office gross of more than $52 million, earning it a place in the top ten highest earning movies based on cost-to-profit ratios.

But the film had another effect, not expected. It’s soundtrack was evocative, and included a dozen great pop, R&B and rock and roll tunes from the late 50s and early 60s, but the movie’s success sent the song “Stand by Me” rocketing back into the top ten of the music charts in the U.S., U.K., and other countries.

King was born Benjamin Earl Nelson. When he got into music, that name seemed too formal and off-putting, and certainly didn’t fit the crooner template for catchy monikers. He shortened his stage name to Ben E. King. King served as a vocalist in several great bands and combos, including the doo-wop combo The Five Crowns, and later The Drifters (formed from the core of Five Crown members after the previous incarnation of The Drifters was disbanded). His long association with The Drifters, and with Atlantic Records, produced dozens of now classic R&B, pop and rock hits: “There Goes My Baby,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “Amor,” to name but four.

Over the decades, his songs have appeared in scores of movies and television shows, often for their powerful nostalgic or atmospheric effect.

King died last week at the age of 76. Musician Gary U.S. Bonds took to social media to say that King “was one of the sweetest, gentlest and gifted souls that I have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend for more than fifty years.”

Actor Jerry O’Connell, a child when the film Stand by Me was made in the 1980s, also voiced expressed his admiration for the well-liked King.

“You know you are good,” O’Connell said on Twitter, “when John Lennon covers your song. Ben E. King was a wonderful and immensely talented man.”

“Stand by Me” became one of King’s greatest legacy’s. It has been called one of the most important songs of rock and roll by The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and early in 2015 the U.S. Library of Congress decided to add King’s recording of the song to the National Recording Registry as an essential part of American music history.

Also last week the world of rock and roll lost Jack Ely, the famously loud voice in the infectious party stomper "Louie Louie." Ely, guitarist and vocalist, died at the age of 71 in Oregon (coincidentally the state which served as the setting for the book and movie Stand By Me). He was most well-known for his membership in the rock and roll band The Kingsmen, an early 60s combo that produced a half dozen classic songs—among them the raucous "Louie Louie."

According to music legend and Ely’s own telling of events, his voice on that song was very nearly an accident. At the tender age of 19, with newly tightened braces on his gapped teeth, he stepped into a studio in Portland, Oregon to record the song. Young, short, intimidated by the loudness of the other musicians, hobbled by those braces which had been adjusted only the day before, he stood there looking up at an awkward angle at the microphone hanging from the ceiling—suspended there, Jack was told, to evoke a live, nightclub ambience to the recording. So Ely shouted, garbled, and bellowed the lyrics as best he could—screaming the words upward at a mic nearly on top of his head.

The result was a one-take recording in that Oregon studio, and the most famous three-chord party song of all time.

In an early skirmish over whether rock and roll was infused with satanic messages or contained calls for teens to abandon conventional morals in favor of sex, drugs and debauchery, those nearly incomprehensible lyrics became the subject of intense investigations by the FBI and military intelligence, not to mention dozens of church organizations. Famously, the song was banned by the state of Indiana, was shunned by some radio stations in other states, drew the ire of preachers and politicians, and—predictably perhaps, sold millions of copies. In truth the lyrics tell the soulful story of a lonely, homesick, slightly drunk sailor talking to a bartender named Louie.

Ely was born to music. His father was a successful musician, singer and songwriter who died when Jack was a child. But little Jack was already a prodigy—excelling in his piano lessons, stretching his vocal range while still in elementary school, and giving his first piano recital at age seven. Then, when he was 13, he watched Elvis Presley perform on Ed Sullivan, and it prompted young Jack to take up the guitar. Jack and some friends played music at a local marina and bar, and those pals eventually formed the core of the Kingsmen.

"Louie Louie" wasn’t even a Kingsmen song. At about the same time that his high school rock and roll band was gaining acceptance, Ely happened to hear an early version of Louie Louie recorded by Rockin’ Roberts and the Wailers’ (appropriately) playing on a jukebox in an Oregon nightclub. The song was originally penned by Richard Berry, and according to legend, had been written on a napkin in a seafood restaurant after Berry had been mesmerized by the funky thump-thump-thump, thump-thump chords and rhythms he heard listening to a Filipino band playing a Latin cha-cha-cha.

Hearing it on that jukebox, Ely instantly loved the 1957 song, and convinced his bandmates to craft their own version—so off to the studio they went.

“It was more yelling than singing,” Ely told writers later, “cause I was trying to be heard over all the other instruments.” That recording of the song was raw, filled with rough edges and glitches and lots of stumbling over the rhythm—even Ely jumping in two beats too soon on the third verse. Warts and all, the song was a keeper. It was April 6, 1963. Parties across North America and a dozen other countries would never be the same.

The weird fusion of the sounds and the lyrics, surreal and uncanny, became unstoppable. Even the pidgin lyrics, which Berry supposed sounded like what a slightly drunk American sailor might say to his bartender (as interpreted by the Latin cha-cha-cha), felt irrepressible: fine little girl she wait for me / me catch the ship for ‘cross the sea. Americana at its best.

Still, the song prompted a long, expensive investigation by the FBI, concluding with a 455-page report detailing how audio experts and decryption geeks had spent weeks—months—trying to make sense of the mishmash of wailing incoherence and thump-thump-thump bassline. The record was studied at slow speeds, fast speeds, and it was even played backwards (this long before the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Peppers!). Legend holds that after letters from angry parents in Indiana arrived in Washington, writing of the supposedly obscene lyrics, Attorney General Robert Kennedy personally listened to the song at the urging of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The investigation lasted more than two years, but came back with nothing. Just that same drunk sailor gurgling about his girlfriend who will, he hopes, wait for him. Still, despite the bans (or because of them) the record sales were brisk, and that song became a kind of badge of honor for rockers everywhere.

By now, in the 21st century, the song is familiar for its hundreds of appearances in television, commercials, and motion pictures. Like “Stand by Me,” which caught its second wind decades later thanks to a movie, so too did “Louie Loiue.” In July 1978 Universal Pictures released National Lampoon’s Animal House—more commonly called simply Animal House—perhaps the greatest slob humor movie ever produced, and one of the most infectious comedies ever created. Starring John Belushi, Tom Hulce, Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert, and Donald Sutherland, the tasteless college-frat house farce became one of the biggest box office hits of the year. After spending a relatively small $3.1 million to produce the film (Belushi received the largest salary) in a mere 28 days, the movie managed to rake in some $141 million. Another near-record breaker for the Hollywood profit-margin.

Like the song “Louie Louie,” Animal House movie was called every name in the book by some critics: juvenile, puerile, politically-incorrect, trashy, smarmy, gross, lowball, obscene, an act of madness. It was also so laugh-out-loud funny that people I knew went back weeks later just to hear the lines that had been buried by audience laughter. The song "Louie Louie" and the movie became inextricably linked. Surfing on the power of Berry’s 1957 song, the Animal House soundtrack rocketed into the top ten, taking with it a dozen other evocative tunes from the movie.

The contrasts and ironies are stark: Ben E. King had one of the smoothest and elegant baritone voices ever known, and his most famous song is now linked to a classic movie set in Oregon; Jack Ely shouted and wailed his way through a single rough take in a Portland studio, setting forth on the world the most essential party song of all time. And did I mention that Animal House was filmed almost entirely in Eugene, Oregon?

Rest in peace Ben E. King and Jack Ely: it’s only rock and roll.

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Percy Sledge: King of Slow Soul; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; April 15, 2015.

American Graffiti & The Great Boomer Experience; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 10, 2013.