A Few Frames Of Public Access Art
Lieber and Stoller, then still just two Jewish kids from Fairfax High in Hollywood, would become the outstanding songwriting team to emerge in the 1950s. They wrote "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," "Jailhouse Rock" and dozens more. Their 1960s output as writers includes "Stand By Me," "On Broadway" and "Is That All There Is." They wrote and produced all the Coasters hits, ran a publishing empire, and generally shaped so much of rock'n'roll that the music is unthinkable without them. "Cell Block #9" was released on their own fledgling Spark label in 1953.
"They were walking up and down Robertson Blvdwhere Modern Records' offices werethe same time The Flairs were," explains Berry, "and Bobby Nunn was the bass singer in the Robins, and he was a very refined (sings operatically) singer like that. And Lieber and Stoller had been around Modern Records and they had heard me do Willie Mabon stuff. That's why they said they wanted me to do it. And of course Modern Records wanted me to do something similar, so I did 'The Big Break' for them, and a whole lot of minor things in that similar talking-type thing."
(Mabon was a Chicago blues pianist and singer who recorded for Chess. His most famous sides"I Don't Know," "I'm Mad"are famous for their clipped, hostile delivery.)
"Lieber and Stoller were the producers on the first thing The Flairs did, which was 'She Wants To Rock,' and you could tell their humorous side, because they had gunshots and everything in the record, and we just us kids singing 'She wants to rock!' and they just had this whole thing come in that really made it interesting. At first we was asking 'What are these guys doing?' 'cause we were just this doowop group, just harmonizing in the kitchen or the bathroom or whatever, then here comes these guys with all these gimmicks and stuff. But that became the mainstay of the Flairs."
When Berry left Modern, he started cutting prolifically for Flip around 1955, where he recorded with two different vocal backing groupsthe Dreamers (all female) and the Pharaohs (all male). And it is Richard Berry and the Pharoahs who cut "Louie Louie" in 1956. Initially released on the B-side of their version of "You Are My Sunshine," "Louie" quickly eclipsed "Sunshine."
Almost everyone knows the famous 1963 version by the Kingsmen, with Don Galluci's famously crappy electric piano kicking off the record. But Richard Berry and the Pharoahs' original starts off with a doowop bass singer, piano left hand, and a mean little descending guitar figure stacked up before the ensemble kicks in over a light Latin groovecribbed from Latin bandleader Rene Touzet's record "El Loco Cha Cha"topped with doowop vocals.
The lyricdespite the later confusion caused by the Kingsmen's drunken deliveryis a great one, about a guy telling a bartender about the girl he left in the South Seas. Berry has said he wrote it with Johnny Mercer's "One For My Baby" in mind, but one also might wonder if he'd heard the huge and often covered country hit "Filipino Baby" or Nat 'King' Cole's "Calypso Blues." Each is 'Louie''s close cousin.
Art grabs a boombox off the floor and plays about half a minute of Richard Berry and the Pharoahs' "Louie Louie," then speaks.
"So that's really just a song about a trip to the Jamaican islands, on a ship," Art offers. "And I heard the way that the song got to the Kingsmen was indirect because another northwestern band, Paul Revere, remembered it and recorded it first"
"Well, originally a group from Washington called The Wailers did it," Berry points out, "But the Kingsmen had the hit. There was a little rivalry going there between the Wailers and the Kingsmen. For me, before then even, it had been one of my bread and butter songs. Before the Kingsmen recorded it, it had been number one in San Francisco, had done well for me in a few other places. So..."
"Somewhere along the way you lost the writer credits for it?"
"I sold the publishing, the copyright in 1957," Berry explains, "I wanted to get married, and at those times, record companies would give you small advances. They'd never give you any money, just a hundred bucks, two hundred bucks, y'know. I wanted to get married, but I was afraid to ask the label owner (Max Feirtag) for a thousand dollars, so I asked him for $750, and I said I'll sell you (my whole publishing catalog). I felt like I had gotten all the milage that I was gonna get out of the songs. 'Cause we never got royalties. We always got a statement but we always owed the record company. I was getting married. I had no idea that a few years later somebody would pick this up and make it a number two record.