— by Jessica Curry
Black culture has a powerful impact on popular culture; at this point, we should all know music is no exception. For example, it is believed that Big Mama Thornton originally recorded the famous song, Hound Dog, and Elvis quickly followed suit, essentially stole it and passed it off as his own. We need to give credit where it is due. We should recognize the Black roots of today’s musical elements, especially in the rock genre.
R&B, Jazz and Blues played a major role in the grunge/rock scene around the world as well as the Pacific Northwest. Again, the Black roots of Pacific Northwestern music are ever-present. Wide-eyed teenagers in the Northwest marveled at artists such as Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, and Hank Ballard; some of them forming bands of their own.
Los Angeles native Richard Berry no doubt was one of the many pivotal musicians who inspired the rock bands of today and yesterday. Tacoma bands such as The Sonics and The Wailers recorded renditions of one of the most popular songs during the 1950s and ‘60s, Louie, Louie, written by Richard Berry. Let it be known that none of these bands passed the song off as their own. Each version of the song is very different, but you can still tell where both The Sonics and The Wailers got their inspiration from. Around 1,600 people have recorded their own versions of “Louie, Louie”, and has been named the most recorded rock song in history.
Richard Berry’s Louie, Louie:
The Sonics’ Louie, Louie:
The Wailers’ Louie, Louie:
Richard Berry along with his ranging discography of songs has and always will be an inspiration for the sound of Pacific Northwestern rock and jazz.
Who was Richard Berry?
Richard Berry was born in Louisiana, but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was around 1 year old. 5 years later, he tried his hand at music when he learned how to play ukulele while at summer camp after injuring his hip.
And so it began, Richard was hooked. While in high school, he sung in a doo-wop group community and was able to join a group called The Flamingos, and later on, The Flairs. Richard Berry’s musical achievements while in these groups allowed him to be featured on Etta James’ song Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry) and eventually start releasing his own original work.
While Richard Berry and his band, The Pharaohs recorded and released multiple songs over the course of his career, the two most popular songs in the Pacific Northwest, specifically Tacoma, were “Louie, Louie” and “Have Love, Will Travel.”
“Louie, Louie, oh, oh, me gotta go.”
His song Louie, Louie, originally a blues song, topped charts all over the country and was even banned in Indiana and the FBI eventually got involved. As we all know, parents of teenagers in the 1950s and 60s were not particularly fond of rock music because it was seen as obscene and inappropriate. But that didn’t stop the song from spreading like a wildfire. “Louie, Louie” was rightfully crowned “the Northwest’s Unofficial Rock Song”. Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song at number 54 in their “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”; not too shabby considering how well it was received among the young people spanned across the nation upon its release.
Inspired by Latin music, Louie, Louie was written on a napkin backstage by Richard Berry between his sets in Anaheim, CA. The song ended up being a mixture of calypso, Latin music, and R&B. He recorded the song about a year after writing it. The success of the song in Los Angeles was nothing compared to how it was received in Tacoma, Washington, and Portland Oregon. This song shaped our musical culture in the Pacific Northwest forever. Before Richard Berry could see the success of Louie, Louie all over the nation, he sold the publishing rights to pay for his wedding in 1957. And that’s when The Wailers and The Sonics were able to publish their own renditions of the song. Thankfully, he recovered a small amount of the publishing rights in 1986 after Artists Rights Enforcement was able to help him out.
The iconic Tacoma band known as The Wailers recorded the first ever rock rendition of Louie, Louie after singer Rockin’ Robin Roberts’ ears were graced with the sweet sound of blues music. Their version of the song was released by Etiquette Records, furthering and possibly cementing the popularity of the song in the greater Tacoma area and Oregon. Their version of the song became a best-seller all over the Pacific Northwest. The Wailers first success was built off of Richard Berry’s first success. With that, many other Pacific Northwest musicians and bands such as The Sonics, Jimi Hendrix, The Kingsmen and The Ventures were inspired by The Wailers.
“If you need lovin’, then yeah, I’ll travel.”
Richard Berry’s second Tacoma hit, Have Love, Will Travel was also a huge inspiration for popular local band The Sonics in the ‘60s, but it never had the same amount of national recognition as Louie, Louie.
Richard Berry actually wrote Have Love, Will Travel around the same time he wrote Louie, Louie, basing it on the TV and radio show “Have Gun, Will Travel”. Of course, his version of the song stayed true to his love for R&B, while The Sonics made use of rock for their rendition of the song.
Have Love, Will Travel was a very popular song and many garage bands in Tacoma covered it during parties and gigs. However, The Sonics were the band that popularized it in the Pacific Northwest.
Richard Berry and the Pharoah’s Have Love, Will Travel:
The Sonics’ Have Love, Will Travel:
Richard Berry’s influence reached all the way from Los Angeles, California to Tacoma, Washington. This man, having only set foot in the Pacific Northwest less than a handful of times had the ability to inspire two very popular Tacoma rock bands in the 1960s. Both The Wailers and The Sonics heard Richard Berry’s songs, changed it around to suit their style, and inspired many more musicians in Seattle and Tacoma to follow suit.
Richard Berry actually performed at the Tacoma Dome alongside two of his biggest admirers, The Wailers and The Kingsmen on December 28, 1983, just a few months after the venue opened. The Kingsmen was a band from Portland, Oregon, who some feel recorded the best rendition of Louie, Louie following The Wailers. Even though his name is not on the poster, Richard Berry was most definitely there.
Remembering Richard Berry
Richard Berry’s final performance was in 1996 alongside the Pharaohs and Dreamers during a charity concert in Long Beach, California. Then, in 1997, while sleeping, Richard Berry died due to heart failure. He is now buried in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
The musical legacy of Richard Berry will forever live on in the hearts of his six children, fans, and the many people left touched and inspired by his songs. His achievements are engraved in the Pacific Northwestern rock scene from the very tippy top of Washington state to the very bottom of Oregon state. Tacoma nor Seattle rock music would be the same without him.
Rest in Power Richard Berry.
- Peter Blecha
- Eric Predoehl
- Randy Sparks
About the Author:
Jessica Curry prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Spring Quarter 2019, she was a sophomore majoring in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.
This was very enlightening and a fascinating article to read. Richard Berry was without a doubt, talented and of course quietly influential while “inspiring” others music.
It would be great if someone were to provide a grant to publish a book about the little known history/roots of American music.