'Louie, Louie' Cheated The Songwriter—But In The End, Everything Turned Out OK
In the 1950s, artist Richard Berry recorded a couple singles, which didn't do very well. By the end of the decade, he sold the rights to all of them to his label, for $750. It wasn't much, but it was more than he figured he'd ever get for them in royalties.
He had no idea that one of his songs, "Louie, Louie," would go on to be covered by the band The Kingsmen and become a huge hit ... and that in the decades that followed, it would be covered by hundreds of different acts, making it one of the most recorded songs of all times. The 2-minute song became famous, while Berry vanished into obscurity. By the '80s, he was on welfare.
There was nothing he could do, right—he'd made a bad deal, and that was that. But in 1982, he learned that the law actually protects songwriters in these cases, so even though he'd made that deal, he was entitled to royalties after all. A little legal wrangling later, and he owned half the song again. He earned $15,000 that way. Then he figured life was short and sold the rights again ... this time for seven figures, becoming a millionaire.
During all this, don't think The Kingsmen had been exploiting Berry. In fact, the record company had been cheating them out of royalties too. Song rights are really complicated: The songwriter has rights to the idea of the song, while the master recording also comes with rights. You might have heard about Taylor Swift's dispute over her music's "master tapes," and The Kingsmen were involved in something similar. They finally got those rights in 2006, 40 years after they recorded the song.
It's a twisty end for "Louie, Louie," a song previously most famous for a years-long FBI investigation to determine if the lyrics were dirty. That investigation failed to detect anything obscene in the verses ... which is hilarious, because if you know where to listen, the song really does, one minute in, feature an accidental f-bomb.
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Top image: Flip Records