Jack Ely (September 11, 1943 – April 27, 2015) was an American guitarist and singer, best known for singing the Kingsmen’s version of “Louie Louie”. He was born in Portland, Oregon; his father died when Jack was four. Ely was classically trained in piano and began playing guitar after seeing Elvis Presley on television. In 1959, he co-founded the Kingsmen and with them recorded “Louie Louie” in 1963; Ely’s famously incoherent vocals were partly the result of his braces and the rudimentary recording method. Before the record became a hit Ely was forced out of the group and began playing with his new band, the Courtmen. Ely died in Terrebonne, Oregon, on April 27, 2015 at age 71.
Jack Ely was born on September 11, 1943 in Portland, Oregon, near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbiarivers. Both of his parents were music majors at the University of Oregon, and his father, Ken Ely, was a singer. Ely’s mother remarried after his father’s death.
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 travelling vaudeville show for entertainers under the age of 18. “We didn’t get paid in money, we got paid in experience,” Ely recalled.
Ely was enrolled at Washington High School in Portland, Oregon. He did not play in the school band, but had a passion for singing. In 1959, Lynn Easton’s mother invited him to play at a Portland Hotel gig, with Ely singing and playing guitar with the backup band and Easton on the drum kit.
Wand 143: Second pressing with “Lead vocal by Jack Ely” text
The two teenagers grew up together, as their parents were close friends Easton and Ely performed at yacht club parties, and soon added Mike Mitchell on guitar and Bob Nordby on bass to round out a band. They called themselves The Kingsmen, taking the name from a recently disbanded group. The Kingsmen began their collective career playing at fashion shows,Red Cross events, and supermarket promotions, generally avoiding rock songs on their setlist. Ely played with the Kingsmen as he attended Portland State University
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 AM. In order to sound like a live performance, Ely was forced to lean back and sing to a microphone suspended from the ceiling. “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.
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 barricaded by Easton, intent on adding replacements. Undeterred, Ely went on to form his own “Kingsmen” group and recorded “Love That Louie” in 1964 for RCA Records. 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.
Later life and career
Ely began touring with his new 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. He had two children from his first wife.
Ely lived at his horse farm in Terrebonne, Oregon, with his wife. 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.”
Ely died on Oregon farm residence on April 27, 2015 age 71, having long suffered from an unknown illness. “Because of his religious beliefs, we’re not even sure what it [the illness] was,” his son Sean Ely said.
• Louie Louie/Haunted Castle (Jerden 712) 1963 (as The Kingsmen) — regional release
• Louie Louie/Haunted Castle (Wand 143) 1963 (as The Kingsmen) — national release; “Lead vocal by Jack Ely” on label after 1964 settlement; B-side changed to Little Green Thing on later pressings; re-released in 1966 as Louie Louie 64-65-66 w/ Haunted Castle B-side
• Love That Louie/Octavepuss (RCA 47-8452) 1964 (as Jack E. Lee and the Squires)
• Louie Louie ‘66/David’s Mood (Bang B-520) 1966 (as Jack Ely ] and the Courtmen)
• Ride Ride Baby/Louie Go Home (Bang B-534) 1966 (as Jack Ely and the Courtmen)
• The Kingsman (Signet 3411-56J) 1990
• Love Is All Around You Now (Mondo Tunes 001) 2011, Internet release
• Ely’s 1976 and 1980 re-recorded versions of Louie Louie appear on multiple “original artist” compilations of 60s hits as by “Jack Ely” or “The Kingsmen featuring Jack Ely”.