Born; April 16, 1944; died April 16, 2021
Mike Mitchell, who has died aged 77, was a guitarist whose solo on The Kingsmen’s version of Richard Berry’s song, Louie Louie, helped define a sound that helped shift rock and roll out of the school hop and into infinitely rawer territory. The song was recorded by the teenage band in a three-track studio, where, according to Mitchell in a 1999 interview with John Broughton on Casey Radio, Melbourne, Australia, the Kingsmen’s one-take wonder of Louie Louie and two more songs took an hour all in, costing a cool $36 to make.
The result saw Berry’s three-chord construction ingested with new life as a bratty piece of almost incoherent bubblegum trash that became an inspiration for every garage band in town. Despite the messiness of the recording, it was released as a single in 1963, and eventually spent several weeks at number 2 in the U.S. charts.
The Kingsmen’s record gained notoriety after the FBI began a lengthy investigation into the alleged obscenities hidden in the song’s barely decipherable lyrics behind vocalist Jack Ely’s unhinged hollering. When the record was banned in one state and pulled from the airwaves in others, such a reactionary move made Louie Louie an essential purchase for every small town rebel without a cause.
Unable to make sense of whatever was being sung, like the squarest and most exasperated of parents, the FBI grudgingly declared Louie Louie to be ‘unintelligible at any speed’.“They were great guys just doing their job,” The Oregonian newspaper reported Mitchell saying of the FBI agents years after the incident.
Regardless of the mythology surrounding the lyrics, it was Mitchell’s guitar break that gave the recording its edge. The extremes of its frenetic fretwork even almost caused the song to collapse in on itself, as Ely mis-timed his cue and came in early following Mitchell’s wig-out before getting back on track. Combined, this made for one of rock and roll’s defining moments. For a band named after the brand of Mitchell’s after-shave lotion, this was quite an achievement.
Mike Mitchell grew up in Portland, Oregon in a musical family with his brother Dennis and sister Viva. He was taught the rudiments of guitar by his father, who played country and western. Mitchell would carry this influence into his rare lead vocal on a version of Henry Strzelecki’s song, Long Tall Texan. Mitchell would practise every day, and later passed on his skills to his younger brother.
“He was an incredible player,” Dennis Mitchell told The Oregonian. “He had long fingers. The lead he played on Louie Louie was ahead of its time for complexity. I was twelve years younger than him, and I played the guitar, too. When he came off the road from touring, he’d come home and spend time with me teaching me licks. He was a kind and gentle soul.”
Mitchell attended David Douglas High School in Portland, where he met Lynn Easton, who in 1960 invited him to join his new group, formed with Ely, a Washington High School student. The trio enlisted bassist Bob Nordby, and became The Kingsmen under the influence of Mitchell’s fragrant accessory.
Drafting in keyboardist Don Gallucci, The Kingsmen practiced in the Mitchell family basement, energetically playing the circuit and becoming a local teen sensation. They became house band at The Chase, a teen dance club run by Ken Chase, who became their manager. When they heard Rockin’ Robin Roberts’ version of Louie Louie on the jukebox of another club, they decided to work the song into their set. Gallucci’s audacious new arrangement made it their own.
By the time they released Louie Louie, the band had splintered, with Ely and Nordby departing after Easton’s mother, who had registered the name of the group, declared that her son was to be its lead singer. Gallucci dropped out to finish high school. He would go on to produce Fun House (1970), the second album by The Stooges, led by Iggy Pop, who would do his own Kingsmen inspired version of Louie Louie.
Eastman and Mitchell built a new line up of the band, releasing several albums before Eastman departed in 1967. This left Mitchell as the group’s sole original member. He retained this status over a 62-year tenure that saw him play with numerous incarnations of the band.
During that time, Louie Louie found favour with fellow beat groups, both from The Kingsmen’s own generation and those that followed. Estimates suggest the song has been covered in around 1,000 different versions. These include renditions by The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and pre-punk fellow travellers such as Pop. A generation of new wave garage bands looked to Louie Louie and other obscurities for inspiration. The song found a new lease of life after John Belushi and co sang it in frat boy comedy film, National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). There is even an International Louie Louie Day, which takes place each year on April 11.
A heart bypass operation thirty years ago didn’t stop Mitchell from playing, and even latterly while ill in bed he would keep his guitar close. The riff he created more than half a century ago was never out of reach.
He is survived by his children, Samantha and Max, his brother Dennis, and his sister, Viva Redding.
The Herald, May 10th 2021