Jack Brown Ely (September 11, 1943 – April 28, 2015) was an American guitarist and singer, best known for singing the Kingsmen's version of "Louie Louie".
Jack Brown Ely was born on September 11 1943 in Portland, Oregon. As a child, he was considered a musical prodigy, giving piano recitals locally before his seventh birthday. He switched to playing the guitar after watching Elvis Presley on television. Jack played guitar and sang for the Young Oregonians, a travelling vaudeville show for entertainers under the age of 18.
In 1959, Lynn Easton's mother invited him to play at a Portland hotel gig, with Ely singing and playing guitar with the backup band and Easton on the drum kit. The two teenagers grew up together, as their parents were close friends. Easton and Ely performed at yacht club parties, and soon added Mike Mitchell on guitar and Bob Nordby on bass to round out a band. They called themselves The Kingsmen, taking the name from a recently disbanded group. The Kingsmen began their collective career playing at fashion shows, Red Cross events, and supermarket promotions, generally avoiding rock songs on their set list. Ely played with the Kingsmen as he attended Portland State University.
Louie Louie has been covered hundreds of times, a three-chord, garage-band classic anybody could play soon after picking up an electric guitar. Ely and the Kingsmen picked it up along with other northwest figures such as Rockin’ Robin Roberts and Paul Revere. The Kingsmen’s version was recorded in 1963 and is the definitive version, going from cult classic to rock-and-roll standard. It has inspired more than a thousand cover versions. The song was written in the mid-1950s by Richard Berry, a Los Angeles musician with roots in doo-wop music. As he recorded it in 1957, the tune had a calypso feel and described a patron telling the barkeeper he had to get back to his girl waiting across the sea in Jamaica.
In addition to the song’s fame, Ely’s incoherent singing also made it one of the most misunderstood. The FBI was so mystified by the hard-to-understand lyrics that it conducted an investigation into whether the song was obscene. It found the song to be “unintelligible at any speed”.
Over the years, Ely and other band members attributed the indistinct lyrics to the microphone suspended from the ceiling, forcing Ely to shout up at it. Sean Ely said his father got “quite the kick” out of the FBI’s 455-page investigative report. He said his father certainly knew the words, and wasn’t just slurring nonsense.
“Right of his mouth, my father would say: ‘We were initially just going to record the song as an instrumental and at the last minute I decided I’d sing it. It’s all of this is in a 10-by-10 room with one microphone. I’m standing on my tippy toes yelling into the microphone: Louie Louie! Louie Louie! We gotta go!’”
Ely had a falling out with the band shortly after the song was recorded. Undeterred, Ely went on to form his own "Kingsmen" group and also recorded "Love That Louie" in 1964 for RCA Records as Jack E. Lee and the Squires. A legal battle ensued, resulting in Ely ceasing to call his group the Kingsmen and Wand Records being required to credit Ely as lead vocalist on all future "Louie Louie" pressings. Ely received $6000 in royalties, and Easton had to stop lip-synching the song in live performances.
Ely began touring with his renamed group, the Courtmen. In 1966, they released "Louie Louie '66" and "Ride Ride Baby" with Bang Records; neither charted. With the Vietnam War on the horizon, Ely was conscripted into the army, and found his career had waned upon his return to the United States in 1968. Ely spiralled down into drug and alcohol addiction, but then spoke out against it with the Rockers Against Drugs.
Latterly, he lived with his second wife on a farm in Terrebonne, Oregon, where he worked as a horse trainer. A devout Christian, he released the gospel album Love Is All Around You Now in 2012.
Ely died at his Oregon residence on April 28, 2015 at the age of 71, having long suffered from skin cancer (according to his son Sean). (Info edited from The Guardian obit & Wikipedia)
Here is some extremely rare footage of Jack Ely, the original vocalist for the Kingsmen, performing "LOUIE LOUIE" with the Courtmen at Seaside, Oregon in 1999.