I believe Matt Welsh when he insisted years later he thought the "whole thing was a tempest in a teapot..." But honestly, that might be just the way he remembered January of 1964, not the way he lived it. Because when the letter from the small town of Frankfurt, promoting a conspiracy theory, landed on the desk of the 41st Governor of Indiana, Matt Welsh wasted no time in spreading it as far and as fast as possible. That's what most politicians do. They spread panic. It's almost their job description.
Frankfurt (above), a town of 15,000 exclusively white citizens, 45 miles due north of Indianapolis, was very much in the news that January because of the Hoosier obsession with high school basketball.
On Saturday, 28 December, 1963, Frankfort High School (above) had hosted a holiday invitational tournament in their new $4.5 million building and basketball arena (above right). The Frankfort "Hot Dogs" were eliminated in the afternoon game. That evening the team from Anderson, Indiana, met the reigning state champs, the Muncie Central High School Bearcats in what Indianapolis News sports writer, Corwin "Corky" Lamm, described as "A Basketbrawl".
During the final seconds of Anderson's upset win, a frustrated Muncie player slammed the ball into his opponent's face. The sight of blood emptied the bleachers. Players and fans went at each other with their fists. Somebody even punched an Anderson cheerleader into the bleachers. Frankfort police quickly got things under control, but according to Lamm, the principle causality was "... one black eye for basketball". At the core of the hysteria which followed, but which was barely mentioned in the press, was that while the entire Anderson team was white, 3 of the 5 starters for Muncie Central (below) were African-Americans.
Interestingly, this seismic headline and editorial producing event was not mentioned in the perfidy letter to Governor Welsh, even though the letter was written less than 3 weeks later, and the author attended Frankfort High School, infamous scene of the "basketbrawl". Rather the writer of the letter postmarked 17 January, 1964 professed to be concerned only with an immoral musical machination which began 8 months earlier, and 1,500 miles away.
At about 10:00 a.m., on Saturday, 6 April, 1963, the 5 members of the rock and roll group The Kingsmen gathered in a recording studio at 411 Southwest 13th Street in Portland, Oregon.
The local group had been playing together for about 2 years, with 18 year old Jack Ely (above left) singing through his new dental braces and playing rhythm guitar. Mike Mitchel (above right front) played lead guitar, Dan Gallucci was on the organ, Bob Norby (above right rear) was on bass guitar and the group's founder, Lynn Easton, reluctantly played the drums. They had pooled their funds to pay the $36 fee for a 1 hour use of the equipment and a recording technician, because they were proud of their rock-and-roll rendition of a calypso song written by a Los Angles musician named Richard Barry - who no longer owned the song, having sold all rights 3 years earlier for $750.
Backstage during a show in 1957, Barry had quickly scribbled the lyrics to a easy going R&B love ballad he called "Louie Louie" - no comma between the names - on a roll of toilet paper. The song told the story in Jamaican English of a young man forced to leave home to find work. "A fine little girl, she waits for me, catch a ship across the sea, Sail that ship about, all alone, Never know if I make it home...3 nights and days I sail the sea, Think of girl, all constantly....See, see Jamaica, the moon above, It won't be long, me see me love, Take her in my arms again, I'll tell her I'll never leave again"
The Portland studio mostly recorded voice-overs for commercials and documentaries. and had never recorded a rock band before. The Kingsmen formed a circle around Jack Ely, one microphone for each instrument's amplifier and a single mic suspended from the ceiling for the vocal - this was before multi-track recording.
After playing "10 or 12 bars" to set sound levels the technician and studio owner Robert Lindahl (above), moved Jack "about 10 feet back" and then they "laid down" a single 2 minute 40 second version of the song. The band thought they were still rehearsing. Ely was yelling to be heard above the amplifiers and drums, and he started the last verse too early. Half way through the song, Easton dropped a stick. But at the end Lindahl announced, "Great! Wonderful! What do you want to put on the B side?"
According to Ely, "We pressed 1,000 copies. The five of us got 20 each to pass out at school...The rest went into distribution, and nothing happened for months." But the slowly growing sales so impressed New York based "Wand Records" they signed on to distribute it. But Wand, as part of the racist division in American music, handled almost exclusively African-American artists. And as guitarist Mike Mitchel explained, "They had no idea we were white. By the time they found out...the song was climbing up the Billboard chart." In fact the Kingsmen's one take version of "Louie Louie" sold 12 million copies. When they later released it as part of an album, the cover did not include a photo of the band.
What the recording had was energy and spontaneity. What it did not have was enunciation. Teenage musicians across the country listened to the popular record over and over, copying the music, but the more they listened, the more versions of the lyrics they came up with. According to Mitchel, "Some students at Tulane University called Lynn's house one afternoon and said, 'We've heard the record and these are the words we hear. Is it true?' And then they sang some dirty lyrics. That was the first time we learned that some people thought the lyrics were obscene because, in the northwest, it was a well-known song that had been played by many groups."
But nobody in Frankfort, Indiana (above) had ever heard the song before, lest of all the student who signed the letter to Governor Welsh. But he or she was certain what they were hearing was "so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter. ” However, students at Miami University in Athens, Ohio produced an obscene version of the lyrics, which compelled Jack New, Governor Welsh's executive secretary, to obtain a copy of the record - thus increasing sales by one more. According to Welsh "We slowed it down and we thought we could hear the words." At the time Welsh had no doubts, saying the supposed lyrics made his ears tingle. The Governor's Press Secretary, James McManus, assured the Indianapolis Star, the obscenities were "indistinct, but plain if you listen carefully."
But Governor Welsh did not bother to contact anyone at Wand Records, or even the band members in Portland, Oregon - whose families were available by dialing directory assistance. Instead Governor Welsh sent a letter off to his "friend", President of the Indiana Broadcasters Association, Ried Chapman (below).
Later Welsh insisted, "At no time did I ever pressure anybody to take the song off the air. I suggested...it might be simpler all around if it wasn't played." Eager to help his friend, Chapman dispatched telegrams to stations statewide "asking" them to not play the record.
Overnight "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen (above)went from the 4th most played song on Indianapolis radio, to zero. A few days later the Indianapolis Star called Portland and reported, "Young Singers Dismiss As Hooey Obscenity Charge in 'Louie Louie.'" Lynn Easton was quoted as saying, "We took the words from the original version by Richard Berry and recorded them faithfully. There was no clowning around. "
But the editorial board of The Star refused to let go of the conspiracy, denouncing "...some stations" which have "decided to fill their programs with a cacophony of noise, and a collection of musical garbage. Call it what you like--folk music, rock 'n' roll, bop, hip or what-not." The paper offered no suggestion as to who should decide what was music and what was garbage, but the implication was clear.
Two Marion County prosecutors were assigned to investigate the dirty record. They played it at the standard 45 revolutions per minute, sped it up to 78 and slowed it down to 33 and a third. Their assessment was "the record is an abomination of out-of-tune guitars, an overbearing jungle rhythm and clanging cymbals." But it was not obscene. Surprisingly the 1 February edition of "Billboard, The International Music - Record Newsweekly", endorsed their own cabal - "...some shrewd press agent may also be playing an important role in this teapot tempest. Exactly whose agent is hard to pin down at this point."
That January the United States Attorney General, Robert Kennedy got an almost identical letter, originating from the parent of a student attending Sarasota High School in Florida. "...My daughter brought home a record of "LOUIE LOUIE"... The lyrics are so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter." Fifty years later it is reasonable to suspect an organized movement to suppress the "jungle rhythm".
But in January of 1964, Kennedy did what Governor Welsh should have done first. RFK ordered the F.B.I to investigate. At the same time the U.S. Post Office and the Federal Communications Commission also launched investigations.
As the Associated Press reported, "All three agencies dropped their investigations because they were unable to determine what the lyrics were even after listening to the recordings played at speeds of 16 rpm to 78 rpm."
The foolishness of the entire matter was made plain when on 1 February - the same day as the Billboard article about the supposed "Louie Louis" conspiracy - announced that the song "I Want To Hold Your Hand" by The Beatles hit number one on the charts. It would stay there for 7 weeks.
The "45 "single record sold 10,000 copies an hour in New York city alone. Nationwide it sold 5 million copies that spring. And it was replaced for another 2 weeks at the top of the Billboard chart by "She Loves You", also by the Beatles. It was the beginning of the British invasion, and the reign of the "Fab Four". The Kingsman's "Louie Louie" was the last American record to top the charts for months.
Frankfort, Indiana saw no advantage in being the source de main for the "Louie Louie" conspiracy theory. Nor did it gain any advantage from the press coverage of the "Basketbrawl" These events, which seemed so important to community leaders in 1964, gained the town nothing. In the forty plus years since the 15,000 residents of "Gem City" - so called because of its early investment in electrical lighting, - grew to a town of about 16,000 people.
There are still almost no African-Americans in Frankfort. But the population is now only 72% white, with Hispanics making up 27%. And 11% of all of them live in poverty. Winning the Culture Wars in Frankfort may not be the cause of its failure to grow, but clearly racism and fear has not helped the town. As the clearly enunciated clearly not obscene lyrics to the Frankfort High School fight song say, "All hail to dear old Frankfort, to the blue and the white that floats upon the breeze....may her glory never, never die." But there are times when it looks like the town just might.
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