[Over the span of three decades, once in a while you can forget the sequence of certain unforgettable events. The summer of 2004 was a doozy and I lost track of which year it occurred.]
In early August 2004 a call came into my office regarding a local festival that could have historical importance, and if I wasn’t busy, they could sure use my help –for free. So I listened to the rambling pitch on the other end of the line, and decided I could at least look into helping promote LouieFest, a music festival in its second year celebrating the much bemused 3-chord sensation, ” Louie, Louie, ” a song that became an anthem for the Baby Boomer generation.
There’s hardly a person on earth who’s never heard the early rock version of this tune, one that set a new, somewhat raunchy standard beyond what Elvis was doing in the early 1960s. Fewer still are there guitar players who didn’t teach themselves this tune early on when they were learning to play.
At the time this whole concept was being pitched I didn’t know too much about the history of the song, or any of the sordid details, of which there are many. So I went to a meeting and became familiar with the ragtag team of players who were putting together a two-day event to commemorate the song’s legacy; establish a music education program; and ultimately set a Guinness World Record featuring the most guitar players ever assembled playing the tune simultaneously. The initial world record was set in 1992 with 1,342 guitarists playing Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business.”
All in all it was a down and dirty, get ‘er done situation under the direction of two members of the group who helped make the song famous: Bass player Buck Ormsby, and keyboard player/vocalist, Kent Morrill.
The Fabulous Wailers – not to be confused with the Jamaican reggae group who played with Bob Marley—were local boys from Tacoma, Washington, with a long and somewhat checkered past in rock and roll. More than anything they had a dark cloud hanging over nearly everything they did; a cloud they’d never escape, and for the life of me, one I’ve never figured out. What they contributed to the beginning of the rock and roll era is staggering.
Originally they were The Wailers from as far back as 1958 when they were all still in high school, and released what is thought to be history’s first rock instrumental, “Tall Cool One,” written by Kent Morrill. In 1961, they launched the first rock indie label, Etiquette Records. Their first release was “Louie, Louie,” a version of Richard Berry’s 1955 calypso sea shanty, a B-side recording they found in the discount bin of a local record store.
The list of historical details is really long and twisted as most incredible stories in music are. So I was treading lightly in this situation working with people who had a shadowy presence in the local music scene. The event deadlines were approaching fast, and of course, not enough time to get it all done. The week prior to the event was a powwow with the ragtag team and the confirmed news that a rally for John Kerry’s presidential campaign was being held in the same facility as LouieFest.
Kerry’s team and an expected 10,000 supporters would be on the grounds of the Tacoma Dome on the opening morning of LouieFest. In one fast jab there was good news and horrible news. The horrible news: How could a facility like the Tacoma Dome double book two (potentially) enormous events for the same day? The good news: During his high school/college years Kerry was in a rock band that performed an early Wailers’ tune called, “Shanghaied.” Instantly, thoughts went to Bill Clinton’s campaign when he played his sax on a late night talk show. Ten thousand Kerry supporters would surely stop in to hear some music at LouisFest. What will happen to parking? How will we handle all those people?
Talk about throwing a monkey wrench into an already stressed out understaffed group of folks who had no idea how to approach this situation with so little time. Fast forward a few days, an emergency powwow was called and there were rumors the Kerry team was bringing a high profile rock group with them. The Wailers still wanted to approach him about playing “Shanghaied” with them to kick off both events, but who was going to do the talking? When all eyes in the room focused my way…I was like, no, no, and no!
The ring leader for the festival’s PR and promo, I knew, was totally ill-suited for a chat like this, so I gathered all my courage after a while, and finally agreed to interface with Kerry’s team. The conversation was very brisk, patronizing, and who the hell did I think I was asking John Kerry to perform with The Wailers.
They said they were still considering flying in either Carole King or The Black Crows.
Mr. Kerry had absolutely no interest in kicking off the event on the LouieFest stage, or performing. I could have politely excused myself from that conversation, but instead, I explained I was not prepared for the idea of someone like Carole King or The Black Crows competing with our festival. Would it be possible for The Wailers to greet John Kerry on his stage? It was possible and they’d get back to me.
Suddenly my phone was hotter than a pistol and the flurry ended with the local media calling asking for a quote about The Wailers supporting John Kerry. New problem. I knew from talking with Kent Morrill this would not be possible. Kent’s religious beliefs would not allow him to support a political candidate. So I had a go round with the journalist who was writing what she believed might be the biggest political story of her career.
Until that very moment, I’d always been wearing the other shoe when talking with journalists, trying to get something included in a story. This time I had to fight like hell to keep something out. And I won just before the story went to press and appeared on the front page of the News Tribune the next morning, the opening day of LouieFest.
We all arrived bright and early at The Tacoma Dome ready for whatever might happen that day. There was only one thing we weren’t prepared for: Nothing. Kerry was to take the stage at 10:00 a.m. and The Wailers decided everyone in the band but Kent would go over to greet him.
By 11:00 a.m. traffic reports of gridlock along Interstate 5 cautioned people to take alternate routes. The Tacoma Dome was empty and cavernous, while thousands of Kerry supporters were lined up in droves just outside waiting for him. Secret Service was strategically placed at every doorway. Sharp shooters were positioned along the perimeter of the dome’s roofline as a fairly intimidating sign to anyone who might be planning to attend a music festival. And the gridlock continued along the Interstate all afternoon.
From inside the dome we could hear the rally in full force, and by early afternoon, I surmised Kerry’s staff was totally blowing hot air about Carole King and The Black Crows. They had no musical guests.
About the time I was leaving someone came to me and said, “The Wailers would like to speak with you,” in a fairly ominous tone. They had all kinds of questions as if I might have a crystal ball I hadn’t shown them. Why had the media tried to keep concert goers away from the festival? Who was in touch with the media all day? What was going on? Why is this happening to us? After explaining I had no idea what was going on, I told them I would go home and contact the media and let them know there was a festival indeed, and could we get some coverage to help this group recover what was lost after months of planning in one fell swoop.
This was Labor Day weekend, and finding someone in the news room who could handle this situation was going to be tough. But it worked out. The top news station in the area sent a crew out the next day to film all the guitar players who’d registered to play “Louie, Louie” in unison for the Guinness World Record. They fell short of breaking that record, but no one knows for sure by how much.
Overall, the festival and all the goals they tried to reach were mostly a huge failure. Several phone calls came in over the next few weeks about how to resolve the situation, none of which were easy solutions to unraveling the rope that brought down the albatross. Kerry and his team came and went like thieves in the night. Imagine that.
And so, a seven-year long relationship working with The Wailers, The Fabulous Wailers began until early 2011 when the last original member of the group, Kent Morrill, passed away.
*As a side note, this entry is being finalized just as news that Paul Revere of Paul Revere and The Raiders has passed away. The Raiders played a big hand in the legacy of “Louie, Louie,” and helped contribute to the song’s legacy of the most recorded rock song in history.