The FBI vs. “Louie Louie:” How can we stamp out this menace??
The February 7, 1964 letter from an irate parent in Sarasota, Florida was addressed to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
“Dear Mr. Kennedy,” the letter began. “Who do you turn to when your teen-age daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold along with objects directed and aimed at the ‘teen age’ market in every city, village and record shop in this nation?
My daughter brought home a record of “LOUIE LOUIE” and I, after reading that the record had been banned from being played on the air because it was obscene, proceeded to try to decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter.”
The letter went on to recommend to the Attorney General that the artists, the Kingsmen, the producers Ken Chase and Jerry Dennon and Jerden Records be “prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
“… these morons have gone too far,” the letter concluded, “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????”
“Louie Louie” was first written and recorded by Richard Berry on the Flip label in 1956. Not a success, it was then re-recorded by the Wailers in 1961 on the Etiquette label. It was a hit locally in the Seattle-Tacoma area, but not nationally.
The Wailer’s version was being played a lot on Portland’s KGON; however, competing station KSIN was not authorized to play it, so KSIN management prevailed on the local band The Kingsmen to record their own version, which they did at Northwest Studio for $36. That version became a surprise nationwide hit, peaking at #2 on the Billboard chart. The trouble started, however, when Shreveport, Louisiana radio station KEEL refused to play the record without a lyric sheet because of rumors of obscenities buried in the lyrics.
According to declassified documents attained from the FBI, Kennedy forwarded the Sarasota letter to the Bureau, who in turn bought the record and sent it to the FBI labs in Washington D.C. In addition, investigations were also initiated by the FCC, the Post Office and the Justice department.
People supposedly discovered that when the 45 rpm record was played at 33–1/3 rpm, the obscene lyrics could be heard. The FBI disagreed; their preliminary conclusions, published March 7, 1964, stated that “all three Governmental agencies dropped their investigations because they were unable to determine what the lyrics of the song were, even after listening to the records at speeds ranging from 16 rpm to 78 rpm.”
The investigation was temporarily stopped, and “specimen Q1” (the actual record) was disposed of in the laboratory. Then, on March 24, 1964, the investigation was re-opened when another parent complained after their teenager bought the single at Blanchard’s, a record shop in Crown Point, Indiana.
According to an FBI memo dated March 27, the parent heard from friends that the lyrics were obscene if listened to at 33–1/3 rpm rather than the normal 45 rpm. The FBI acquired two more copies of the record when one from Florida and one from San Diego, labeled “Q2” and “Q2A,” were forwarded to them.
According to the FBI Tampa field office, students at Sarasota Middle School were passing handwritten copies of the supposed obscene lyrics to other students around school. The Special Agent in Charge (SAC) got hold of a copy and when he played the record, found that the handwritten lyrics circulating among the students “appeared” to be the actual lyrics of the song. “Where the words in the record are slurred, the words in the written lyrics are very obscene,” he reported.
Sarasota radio station WKXY then furnished the SAC a copy of the lyrics provided by Limax Music. He reported in a memo that “these printed lyrics … are certainly not the same as the obscene lyrics received from the Junior High School, and “do not appear to be the lyrics being sung in the record.”
Thankfully, an administrator at the middle school told the SAC that the lyric sheets were being copied by hand, and that no commercial means were being utilized to distribute the obscene lyrics, so no “prosecutive action” was warranted.
Meanwhile, assistant U.S. Attorney Lester Irvin of Hammond, Indiana advised of a possible violation of Section 1465 Title 18 if the lyrics were indeed found to be obscene. He forwarded the record and the typewritten sheet of lyrics to the FBI lab.
Again, despite listening really, really hard, the FBI Labs could not determine what the lyrics really were. An investigation of interstate transportation of obscene matter by the Justice Department concluded that “the lyrics on the record ‘Louie Louie’ could not be clearly interpreted …There is no apparent federal violation involving the obscene lyrics.” Still, the Governor of Indiana banned the song.
The controversy stubbornly dragged on. On March 31, 1965 the Detroit FBI field office jumped into the fray after fielding several complaints about the record from administrators at John C. Fuhrmann Junior High School, who hit the roof after finding a copy of the obscene lyrics in a student’s locker. “The recording is being played at 45 rpm by local disc jockeys,” stated a memo dated June 18, 1965, “but youngsters are playing the recording at 33–1/3 rpm speed so they can discern the obscene language in this recording.”
DC HQ advised Detroit to work directly with the Wand label to ascertain the lyric sheet of the record after reporting their previous efforts to decipher the lyrics were unsuccessful. Even worse, the memo stated that the record “has become very popular over the radio stations which cater to the teenage ‘rock and roll’ fans in the greater Detroit area, and is considered to be a ‘best seller.’”
The more pragmatic FCC granted a clearance to the song ( as stated in a June 18, 1965 memo) because according to their sources the trouble was started almost two years earlier by a college student who made up a series of obscene verses to the song and then sold them to other students. It was the FCC’s opinion that “a person can take any 45 rpm recording and reduce its speed to 33 rpm and imagine obscene words, depending upon the imagination of the listener.”
In fact, the FCC had in fact written to the President of Wand Records back in February, 1964 and asked him point blank if objectionable lyrics had purposefully been inserted into the song. He responded in a letter released and heavily redacted by the FBI that “all the people connected with the making and the sales of this record are highly reputable business people who are as vitally concerned with this matter as you are and wish to bring to justice anyone connected with the dissemination of libelous information.”
Still, the complaints rolled in to the Bureau, including a particularly heartfelt one from the Flint, Michigan Junior Women’s Club. On June 18, 1965 the FBI decided to either obtain a copy of the vocal track from Wand Records or “locate the singing team, ‘The Kingsmen,’ and interview regarding lyrics they recorded in song ‘Louie Louie.’”
Wand informed the Bureau that the recording had been mono, so there was no separate voice track to the song. So the FBI separately interviewed all five members of the Kingsmen, redacting their names from a report dated Sept. 7, 1965.
“[redacted] said he had been aware for over a year that certain persons profess to hear obscene words in the group’s recording of the song ‘Louie Louie’ but so far as he is concerned the words they claim to hear simply do not exist on the record. He said the recording was originally done on the west coast over a year ago and the group simply selected a standard version of the lyrics. With a short practice session and certainly no deliberate attempt to include any obscene or suggested wording the initial tape recording was made.”
The other members made similar statements. After the interviews by the FBI, Wand Corporation offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could substantiate the reported obscenity.
Finally, on December 6, 1965, the Assistant United States Attorney Robert J. Grace advised the investigation was closed, and that no further investigation be conducted. In October, 1966, the FBI finally disposed of all copies of the record and the lyric sheets and closed the file.
(The FBI file on “Louie Louie” comprises almost 150 pages of documents, in the time period from January, 1964 to December, 1966. It was acquired on May 19, 2014, and may be still available for download at vault.fbi.gov).
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