Berry was born in Extension, south of Monroe, Louisiana, and moved with his family to Los Angeles as a baby. As a child he suffered a hip injury and had to walk on crutches until he was six. His first instrument was the ukelele, which he learned while attending a summer camp for crippled children. Berry attended Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, and along with many other pupils practised singing vocal harmonies in the corridors.
He began singing and playing in local doo-wop groups, recording with a number of them including The Penguins, The Cadets and the Chimes, the Crowns, the Five Hearts, the Hunters, the Rams, the Whips, and the Dreamers, an otherwise all-female quartet from Fremont High. He then joined The Flairs (who also recorded as the Debonaires and the Flamingoes) in 1953. The Flairs’ 1953 record "She Wants To Rock", on Modern Records, featured Berry’s bass vocals, and was an early production by Leiber and Stoller. A few months later, when the producers needed a bass voice for The Robins’ "Riot In Cell Block #9" on Spark Records, they recruited Berry to provide the menacing introduction to the song – uncredited, as he was contracted to Modern. The Robins would later become The Coasters.
Berry’s voice was also used at Modern, again uncredited, as the counterpoint to Etta James on her first record and big hit, "The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)", and several of its less successful follow-ups. Berry also recorded with several other groups on the Modern and Flair labels, including Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns, and the Dreamers (who later became The Blossoms). By the end of 1954, Berry left the Flairs to form his own group, the Pharaohs, (see photo above left) while also continuing to work with other groups as a singer and songwriter.
One of the groups Berry played with after leaving the Flairs was a Latin and R&B group, Rick Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers. In 1955, Berry was inspired to write a new calypso-style song, "Louie Louie", based on the Rhythm Rockers' version of René Touzet's "El Loco Cha Cha", and also influenced by Chuck Berry's "Havana Moon". Berry also stated he had Frank Sinatra's "One For My Baby" in mind when writing the lyrics. One night waiting backstage at the Harmony Club Ballroom, Berry took the rhythm of "El Loco Cha Cha" and began to add lyrics, writing them down on toilet paper. Richard Berry and the Pharaohs recorded and released the song as the B-side to his cover of "You Are My Sunshine" on Flip Records in 1957. It became a minor regional hit, selling 130,000 copies.
It was re-released as an A-side and, when the group toured the Pacific Northwest, several local R&B bands began to adopt the song and established its popularity. "Louie Louie" finally became a major hit when The Kingsmen's raucous version – with little trace of its calypso-like origins other than in its lyrics - became a national and international hit in 1963 (Paul Revere & the Raiders also recorded the tune in the same studio the day after The Kingsmen, but their version was not a hit). The nearly unintelligible (and innocuous) lyrics were widely misinterpreted as obscene, and the song was banned by radio stations and even investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The song has been recorded over 1,000 times, However, Berry received little financial reward for its success for many years, having sold the copyright for $750 in 1959 to pay for his wedding. Berry commented in 1993 'Everybody sold their songs in those days. I never was bitter with the record companies. They provided a vehicle for five young black dudes to make a record."
Berry continued to write and record into the early 1960s, including such numbers as "Have Love, Will Travel" (which would later become a local hit for The Sonics), but with little commercial success, and also continued as a performer.
In the mid eighties Berry was living on welfare at his mother's
In February 1996, Berry performed for the final time, reuniting with the Pharaohs and the Dreamers for a benefit concert in Long Beach, California. His health declined shortly after this, and he died of heart failure in 1997. He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. (Info Wikipedia)
Richard Berry & the Pharaohs reunited for a special show in Long Beach, CA on February 24, 1996. It turned out to the final performance of the group, as Richard Berry died next year, and Godoy Cobert passed away in 2002.
This is a performance of the song "Have Love Will Travel,' which Richard Berry himself described as "Louie Louie sped up." This video was captured for the documentary THE MEANING OF LOUIE.