If for no other reason than that he was the original writer and performer of "Louie Louie" (itself based on "El Loca Cha Cha" by Rene Touzet), Richard Berry holds a permanent place of honor in the history of rock & roll. Beyond that, though, Berry was an important, if secondary, figure of the early- and mid-'50s Los Angeles R&B scene. As a teenager with the Flairs and as a solo act, Berry recorded quite a few singles that demonstrated his versatility with ballads, novelty songs, and even Little Richard-styled numbers. His facility with deep-voiced comic material was a clear forerunner of the Coasters, and in fact he was the uncredited lead singer on Leiber & Stoller's "Riot in Cell Block #9," recorded by the Robins (later to mutate into the Coasters). He took another uncredited vocal as Ella James' deep-voiced sparring partner on "Roll With Me, Henry," one of the biggest R&B hits of the mid-'50s. Berry originally recorded "Louie Louie" in 1956; the record was a regional hit in several West Coast cities, but no more than that.
Berry's recording career petered out in the late '50s, though he remained an active performer. In the early '60s, several Northwest bands seized upon "Louie Louie" as cover material, scoring sizable regional hits; finally, in 1963 the Kingsmen broke the song nationally, reaching number two. In the decades since then, "Louie Louie" became one of the most oft-covered rock standards of all time; there probably exists well over 1,000 versions. The song was investigated by the FBI and inspired parades and campaigns to adopt it as the official song of the state of Washington. The original version ironically remains extremely difficult to find, appearing only on obscure compilations (the Berry version on Rhino's Louie Louie anthology is a re-recording). For Berry there was a happy ending -- in the late '80s he regained the rights to his song that he had lost many years ago.