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May 122016
 

Jack ElyApril 28, 2015 – Jack Ely was born on September 11, 1943 in Portland, Oregon near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. Both of his parents were music majors at the University of Oregon, and his father, Ken Ely, was a singer. His father died when he was four years old and his mother subsequently remarried.

Ely began playing piano while still a young child, and was performing recitals all over the Portland area before his seventh birthday. When he was eleven, a piano teacher provided what he termed “jazz improvisation lessons.” The teacher would show Ely a section of a classical composition, and the boy would have to make up 15 similar pieces. He would be required to share each in class and then make up one on the spot.

On January 28, 1956, Ely watched Elvis Presley on television for the first time, and he decided that he wanted to play guitar. At his first guitar lesson, he was required to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, an experience that Ely found so demeaning that he quit after that lesson and began picking out his favorite guitar riffs by ear. Ely played guitar and sang for the Young Oregonians, a traveling vaudeville show for entertainers under the age of 18. “We didn’t get paid in money, we got paid in experience,” Ely recalled.

In 1962, while playing a gig at the Pypo Club in Seaside, Oregon, the band noticed Rockin’ Robin Roberts’s version of “Louie Louie” being played on the jukebox for hours on end. The entire club would get up and dance. Ely convinced the Kingsmen to learn the song, which they played at dances to a great crowd response. Unknown to him, he changed the beat from 1-2-3-4, 1–2, 1-2-3-4, 1–2 to 1-2-3, 1–2, 1-2-3, 1–2 because he based it on the intro only. Ken Chase, host of radio station KISN, formed his own club to capitalize on these dance crazes. Dubbed “The Chase”, the Kingsmen became the club’s house band and Ken Chase became the band’s manager. Ely was begging Chase to let the band record their own version of “Louie Louie”, and on April 5, 1963, Chase booked the band an hour-long session at the local Northwestern Inc. studio for the following day. The band had just played a 90-minute “Louie Louie” marathon.

Despite the band’s annoyance at having so little time to prepare, the Kingsmen walked into the recording studio on April 6 at 10:00 am. In order to sound like a live performance, the group’s equipment was arranged such that Ely was forced to lean back and sing into a boom microphone suspended high above the floor. “It was more yelling than singing,” Ely said, “’cause I was trying to be heard over all the instruments.” In addition, he was wearing braces at the time of the performance, further compounding his infamously slurred words. Ely sang the beginning of the third verse a few bars too early, but realized his mistake and waited for the rest of the band to catch up. In what was thought to be a warm-up, the song was recorded in its first and only take. The Kingsmen were not proud of the version, but their manager liked the rawness of their cover. The B-side was “Haunted Castle”, composed by Ely and Don Gallucci, the new keyboardist. However, credit was given to Lynn Easton on both the Jerden and Wand labels. The entire session cost $50, and the band split the difference.

Before the record became a hit Jack was forced out of the group and began playing with his new band, the Courtmen. Ely began touring with his new group, and in 1966, they released “Louie Louie ’66” and “Ride Ride Baby” after which he was called up into the army.

On August 16, during a band practice, Easton told Ely that he wanted to abandon the drums and become the frontman and singer. Ely would have to become the drummer, and since The Kingsmen was registered in Easton’s name only, he technically led the band. Ely was not happy with this turn of events, and he and Nordby left the band at once. At the time, the song had sold roughly 600 copies and it was thought that the Kingsmen would disband. When he found out “Louie Louie” was climbing up the Billboard charts, Ely attempted to rejoin the group, but was blocked by Easton who was intent on adding replacements. 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.

In August of that year, during a band practice, Easton told Ely that he wanted to abandon the drums and become the frontman and singer. Ely would have to become the drummer, and since The Kingsmen was registered in Easton’s name only, he technically led the band. Ely was not happy with this turn of events, and he and Nordby left the band at once. At the time, the song had sold roughly 600 copies and it was thought that the Kingsmen would disband. When he found out “Louie Louie” was climbing up the Billboard charts, Ely attempted to rejoin the group, but was blocked by Easton who was intent on adding replacements. 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 spiraled down into drug and alcohol addiction, but then spoke out against it with the Rockers Against Drugs.

In later years, Ely lived at his farm in Terrebonne, Oregon, where he trained horses. He was a strong supporter of the Performance Rights Act, which would give royalties to recording artists and record labels. Since Ely was not the original author, he never received any money from the radio play of “Louie Louie.” In an interview, he said, “It’s not just about me. There are a lot of one-hit wonders out there just like me who deserve compensation when their recorded performances are played and stations get ad revenue from it.”

In 2012, Ely released a Christian rock album, Love Is All Around You Now.

Ely died at his Oregon residence on April 28, 2015 at the age of 71, having long suffered from an unknown illness. “Because of his religious beliefs, we’re not even sure what it was that killed him,” his son Sean Ely said. He was a Christian Scientist and Sean Ely believed his father suffered from skin cancer.