"Louie Louie" - The Missing Link: The Fabulous Wailers and Rockin' Robin Roberts

If “Louie Louie” was written by a Los Angeles R&B/Doo-Wop guy and made famous by a couple of bands from Portland, why was an effort undertaken to make it Washington’s official state song?  Why did Washington have “Louie Louie Day” in 1985?

No, as incredible as that sounds, this is not a “once upon a time” or “this is no s**t” post.  The answers lie in the honest to goodness history of Seattle-Tacoma rock ‘n roll. 

One of the most influential bands from the Northwest -- Tacoma specifically -- is the missing link between the 1957 calypso-styled original and the dueling 1963 rock versions.  That band was the Wailers -- “Fabulous” was added by an East Coast record executive.  They influenced the Ventures, the Sonics, and Jimi Hendrix.  The Wailers are considered one of the first “garage” bands.

In the Ventures’ “Surfin’ Hits” music book, three of the songs were written by Rich Dangel and John Greek, the original guitarists for the Wailers.  No other songwriters or bands -- including members of the Ventures themselves -- have that many songs in that music book.  Dangel and Greek were in high school when they wrote those songs: “Tall Cool One," “Road Runner,”  and “Shanghaied.”  “Tall Cool One” charted twice for the Wailers -- first in 1959 and again in 1964.

Jimi Hendrix’ “Spanish Castle Magic” was about the roadhouse on the highway between Seattle and Tacoma where, during his high school days in Seattle, the Wailers were the house band.  One of the Pacific Northwest’s seminal albums is the Wailers’ At The Castle, which was released in 1961. 

When I “traded” my vinyl collection for a Fender Custom Vibrolux amp, I could not part with 1959’s The Fabulous Wailers, which featured the band’s original line-up of Rich Dangel (lead guitar), John Greek (rhythm guitar), Kent Morrill (piano, vocals), Mike Burk (drums), and Mark Marush (tenor sax).  George Harrison was a fan of that album and was quoted as “having it since day one.”

Initially, despite its calypso styling, “Louie Louie” was viewed as a R&B song.  It gained popularity in the Northwest when Richard Berry toured there and local R&B bands then covered the song.  That path, however, meant that “Louie Louie” was destined for obscurity.

But the Wailers took “Louie Louie” from R&B to rock.  From probable obscurity to a garage party classic.  Featuring their line up after John Greek left the band, they recorded the song in 1960.  Even though they were barely out of high school, they released it on their own record label -- Etiquette Records. 

They gave the song the elements that everybody recognizes now as “Louie Louie.”  They came up with the instantly recognizable chord progression.  They gave it a honking sax intro which the Raiders copied.  Rockin’ Robin Roberts, who joined the band to give it a dynamic frontman, introduced the break with “Let’s give it to ’em, Right Now!”   And Rich Dangel  added the guitar solo which became the gold standard to be copied time and time again in later versions of “Louie Louie.” 

The Wailers’ 45 became a radio hit in the Pacific Northwest.  Tens of thousands of copies were sold locally.  Every rock band in the area had to play “Louie Louie” at every dance.  It was a rite of passage for musicians.  From this caldron, the dueling recordings of The Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders boiled up three years later.

Without Washington’s own Wailers, “Louie Louie” may not have become the iconic party anthem that it is.  Dueling versions would not have been recorded or released.  Without the Wailers, “Louie Louie” may never have become part of the fabric of Washington and Pacific Northwest rock ‘n roll.  Maybe Washington’s love affair with “Louie Louie” is not so far-fetched as it seems at first look.

Yes, indeed, the Wailers and their singer Rockin’ Robin Roberts are the missing link in the evolution of “Louie Louie” from calypso ditty to rock staple!

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