The Enduring Legacy of The Kingsmen—Part 1

At the time, they didn’t know it would change the music world, and their lives, forever.

Interviewing current and former Kingsmen members Dick Peterson, Steve Peterson and Barry Curtis, as well as Hollywood Walk of Fame DJ, Brien Bierne, wasn’t just fascinating—it was fun. They talked to me about The Kingsmen, “Louie Louie,” and how it all began more than 50 years ago.

Francis Ford Coppola once said art depends on luck and talent. For the legendary Kingsmen, it involved luck and talent, but timing as well. Dick Peterson, one of the band’s early drummers, is quick to admit The Kingsmen’s rocket to fame was the result of the perfect musical storm.

In the early 1960s, rockabilly stars from the 1950s were still churning out hits. But the early 1960s also ushered in new and eclectic sounds ranging from novelty songs to musical styles including folk, doo wop, rhythm and blues, surf and Motown. Of that time, Peterson, “The fan focus was shifting from individuals like Elvis, Fabian and Frankie Avalon to an era of bands.’”

As the musical scene was evolving, former disc jockey Brien Beirne, sees one event as a major catalyst. “In fall of ’63 when The Kingsmen came out with ‘Louie Louie,’ a very interesting thing happened that I think changed everything musically,” he reflects. “It was the death of President John F. Kennedy. Everybody was looking for an escape. It was such a horrific, devastating moment, and I believe it opened the door to lots of new sounds. The Kingsmen were part of the wave that represented escapism for the youth of the day.”


Louie Louie 45 RPM © 2006 Richard Peterson

So, in April 1963, when five young guys in Portland, Oregon, recorded an audition tape to land a gig on a cruise ship, they were unprepared for what was about to come.

The Kingsmen’s version of “Louie Louie” was popular in the Portland area, where it enjoyed cross-pollination by local KISN AM rock DJ, Ken Chase. Chase also financed the $36 needed to produce the demo destined to become the iconic hit single, and hosted The Kingsmen as the house band in his teen nightclub, The Chase. Beirne, who was a teenager in the Portland area at the time, remembers it being such a hot ticket “that it didn’t matter how many pimples you had—if you could get a table for you and your date at The Chase, you were ‘golden’ for the evening.”

The band enjoyed success and played packed houses, but it wasn’t until Boston’s most popular DJ, Arnie Ginsburg, aired the song as “The Worst Record of the Week,” that “Louie Louie” experienced a meteoric surge in popularity. The reason? Unintelligible lyrics had teenagers imagining the words were laced with profanities and descriptions of sexual acts!

They didn’t realize the poor sound recording would be a critical factor in the song’s appeal, but several things came into play:

  • Jack Ely, the lead singer on the recording, had just had his braces adjusted and his mouth was in pain;
  • The sound engineer refused to move any of the microphones nearer to Ely, impacting the clarity of the lyrics; and
  • The band had not tightly rehearsed, which opened the door to spontaneity.

The ambiguous lyrics, the rough sound and energy, and the luck of having Ginsburg spin the song when he did was pure genius, but unplanned. Peterson laughs, “It was very fortunate. Without the controversy, I think The Kingsmen’s version of ‘Louie Louie’ would’ve died.”

To be continued…



Terri Nakamura is a professional graphic designer who loves social media, music and writing.  Follow her on Twitter: @terrinakamura; Read her blog, Confessions of a Graphic Designer: or find her connections:

© 2010-13 Terri Nakamura


The Beat Goes On

First of an eight-part series featuring legendary rock band, The Kingsmen

Photo by Raphael during our stay in L.A. shooting ‘How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.’ Pictured L – R: Mike Mitchell, Barry Curtis, Dick Peterson, Lynn Easton, Norm Sundholm

As told by Dick Peterson, The Kingsmen drummer, 1963-present

When I was young, I found everything on the radio influences you.

The Kingsmen started as kind of a “hootenanny” group, with acoustic guitars and a stand-up base. And as that music changed — when the electronic stuff came in; The Ventures and surf music started to take off — then the band got electrified and did that for a while.

When the Wailers became popular in the Northwest and put out an album called “The Fabulous Wailers at the Castle,it became an album that all bands from the day learned. Our band was sort of a butterfly that was being molded by all the influence around it. And then it gained its own recognition — and its own sound.

We recorded the quintessential version of “Louie Louie.” Because of our naiveté with regards to why kids were coming to see us (the lyrics of “Louie Louie” were allegedly obscene), we thought it was comical when the F.B.I. started to investigate us. I was 17 at the time.

I cannot believe we hit the road and had absolutely no clue what we were doing, especially regarding the business. We just had no clue. And the impact that “Louie Louie” was having nationally — we just didn’t even see it. We were playing a different show in a different town night every single night and we were really out of touch except for what people kept saying, you know — “What about the FBI? What about this word? What about that word? What about these lyrics?” We kept denying it. We thought it was funny. It was like, “You think it says WHAT? Are you kidding?” We were the bad boys of rock and roll, but we were naive and innocent.

We were on the road all the time and had to find ways to amuse ourselves. We destroyed a hotel room once, out of fun. It wasn’t because we were drunk or drugged out. No one’s been into that stuff. Our worst moment was, we shot up a hotel room. We had been on the road playing double days for six months—a morning concert in one city and an evening concert in another. It would often be a high school assembly in the afternoon, then a dance in the evening a hundred miles away. We were going crazy and wanted some time off.

We finally got a day off and were in a hotel — a Holiday Inn, actually. It was right across the street from a gun shop. So, someone, I think Jimmy (our road man) bought a dart set. Then it escalated and someone bought a pellet gun. Then it was like, “Let’s open the door and see how far away we can get from that target and still hit it. You couldn’t get very far, but hey! A 22-calibre rifle could shoot from further away! With the doors open and across the parking lot, we wanted to see if we could hit something. We didn’t know it destroyed anything until we went to check it out.

You know those cinder block walls? Yeah, oh boy. When we checked it out and Jimmy removed the target, the only place that was not hit was where the target was. We checked out and left. Our managers called and were angry with us. It cost us a little bit of money to repair things. There was not a sign on the highway that we didn’t hit with a pellet gun, bottles or bottle caps.

When you think of what we were making and how hard we were working, it came to almost $2 million per year. When we decided we weren’t going to play psychedelic music and it was time to leave the road, there was nothing left. Our handlers had taken everything. We had worked really hard for five years and had nothing.

We initiated a lawsuit when we suspected the record company might have victimized us. We knew our recordings were released on other labels and felt we should be receiving royalties, but without management or legal representation, we had no idea how to collect them. We went into the lawsuit not only for the royalties, but with the claim to all rights associated with the master recordings. Winning that case was earth shaking. All sorts of acts have filed and now own their own material. They’re making a fortune. We’re making a lot of money, but the problem is, it’s all going to the attorneys, still. We’re close, though.

It makes me feel great to have Rolling Stone magazine called “Louie Louie” the fourth most influential recording of all time, and I completely agree with them. Beside the cultural significance, I think for anyone who wants to play an instrument, you play “Louie Louie” and you would be encouraged. Here something that’s sold who knows how many millions copies, and it has three chords. Anyone in the world can play it.

We’re one of the few acts of that era that are still performing nationally. The Kingsmen have always just played, not arranged and practiced stuff. You could play the same song 10 times and it would be different each time. We don’t rehearse. We talk about rehearsing. It’s like, someone will say, “Do you know this song? Do you know what key it’s in?” I’ve heard it before and we talk about it and it’s fine. Our attitude is — have fun. •

Above photo © 2006 Richard Peterson


Dick Peterson joined The Kingsmen in 1963 and has written a book,
“Louie Louie Me Gotta Go Now”


Terri Nakamura is a professional graphic designer who loves social media, music and writing. Follow her on Twitter: @terrinakamura; Read her blog, Confessions of a Graphic Designer: or find her connections on xeeme:

© 2010-12 Terri Nakamura