Jack Ely, ‘Louie Louie’ singer, dies at 71

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Jack Ely, who sang lead vocals on party anthem "Louie Louie," is dead at 71

Ely was a member of the Kingsmen, who recorded the song in 1963

CNN  — 

When 19-year-old Jack Ely stepped into a Portland, Oregon, studio in 1963 to sing vocals on a low-budget cover of a little-known garage-rock song, he had no idea he was making music history.

But that raucous version of “Louie Louie,” recorded by Ely and his Kingsmen bandmates for $36, became an enduring party anthem, a staple of frat-house movies like “Animal House” and one of the most influential songs in rock ‘n’ roll.

Ely died Monday night at his Redmond, Oregon, home after an unknown illness, his son Sean Ely told KOIN-TV, a CNN affiliate. He was 71.

The Kingsmen had a few lesser hits, including “Money (That’s What I Want),” but it was their cover of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” that made them famous.

Former Kingsmen singer Jack Ely in 2009

Despite its raw mix and garbled words – it was recorded in one take – the song reached No. 2 on the pop charts. Its incoherent lyrics also prompted speculation that the song, about a sailor returning home to see his girlfriend, contained dirty words. Many radio stations banned it, and the FBI conducted an investigation that famously concluded the song was “unintelligible at any speed.”

“Louie Louie” has since been covered by everyone from the Beach Boys to the Grateful Dead to R.E.M. In 2013 Rolling Stone ranked it 54th on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

While Ely’s shouted vocals remain a trademark of the song, his time in the Kingsmen was short-lived. He quit the band at the peak of “Louie Louie’s” popularity after he was pushed out as lead singer. Ely briefly performed with other musicians under the Kingsmen name until legal action forced him to stop, and he later fronted other bands.

The Portland native eventually retired from a full-time music career to train horses in rural Oregon, his son said.

“It was a little chaotic. Dad was away a lot doing music … and rehearsals were always at the house,” Sean Ely told KOIN about his childhood. “I remember road trips, going to see him everywhere.”

For the younger Ely, who grew closer to his father in his later years, his dad’s early fame was bittersweet.

“It was always really the fast lane, being the son of a rock star,” he said. “People may think it’s really glamorous, but there’s a lot of absences.”

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