Jack Ely is shown second from left in the above photo of the Kingsmen from the early Sixties.
Jack Ely, who was best known for singing the Kingsmen’s perennial hit “Louie Louie,” died April 27 of unknown causes at his farm in Oregon. He was 71.
A guitarist and singer, Ely cofounded the Kingsmen in 1959 and recorded “Louie Louie” with them at a one-hour session on April 5, 1963. The song, a three-chord R&B basher written in 1955 by Richard Berry, was perfectly suited to the group’s rudimentary rock and roll skills, but Ely’s vocals on the recording were nearly incoherent. He and his bandmates attributed his unintelligible performance to the studio microphone, which was suspended from the ceiling, forcing Ely to stand on tip-toes and strain. Reportedly, Ely was also wearing braces, which further impeded his performance.
“It was more yelling than singing,” Ely said of his singing on the track, “‘cause I was trying to be heard over all the instruments.”
Ely also screwed up the third verse, coming in too early and then stopping when he realized his error. The group thought the recording was just a warm-up, but it was actually the first and only take.
“Louie Louie” was released in May 1963 on Jerden Records, and by August it had sold only about 600 copies. When drummer Lynn Easton announced that he wanted to take over as singer and have Ely play drums, Ely quit, believing that the Kingsmen had run their course.
His timing wasn’t great. Soon after he left, “Louie Louie” began climbing the charts. When Ely’s attempts to rejoin the group failed, he formed his own group, also called the Kingsmen, with whom he cut “Love That Louie” for RCA in 1964. Ely was forced to give up the name in a legal battle, but he won a victory when Wand Records—which had picked up “Louie Louie” after it became a hit—was required to credit Ely as lead vocalist on subsequent pressings of the record. In addition, Ely received $6,000 in royalties.
He also picked up a bit of notoriety after the FBI opened an investigation into whether his hard-to-understand lyrics were obscene. The dossier reportedly ran to 455 pages, but the FBI closed the case without a prosecution. Reportedly, the agency played the song at various speeds to determine what, if any, obscenities it contained before concluding that the words were “unintelligible at any speed.”
Ely continued to mine the song in his attempts to kickstart his music career. In 1966, his new group, the Courtmen, released “Louie Louie ’66,” which failed to chart. Soon after, he was drafted and served in the Vietnam War, but found it difficult to resume his music career when he returned from service in 1968.
Although “Louie Louie” sealed Ely’s reputation as a garage rocker, he was also an accomplished pianist who began playing when he was a young child. Born September 11, 1943 in Portland, Oregon, Ely performed recitals throughout the area and demonstrated his compositional skills early on. After his instructor presented him with a section of a classical composition, Ely would have to create 15 similar pieces. Upon sharing them with the class, he would be required to make up another on the spot.
Ely’s interest in guitar began in 1956 when he saw Elvis Presley perform. He signed up for guitar lessons but quit immediately when the lesson included the children’s tune “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He taught himself by ear, copying chords and licks from his favorite records.
In his later years, Ely was a supporter of the Performance Rights Act, designed to give royalties to recording artists and record labels. “There are a lot of one-hit wonders out there just like me who deserve compensation when their recorded performances are played and stations get ad revenue from it,” he said.
Ely held strong religious beliefs and had battled an unknown illness for some time. “Because of his religious beliefs, we’re not even sure what it was,” his son Sean says.