Mike Mitchell, Guitarist on the Kingsmen’s ‘Louie Louie,’ Dies

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Mike Mitchell, the lead guitarist and co-founder of the early rock band the Kingsmen, best known for their 1963 hit single, “Louie Louie,” died April 16, 2021. His death, on his 77th birthday, was confirmed by the group on its louielouie.org website. Mitchell reportedly died of a heart attack; the location was not revealed.

Mitchell was the only surviving member to continue with the band since its start in 1959.

The posting on the group’s site noted, “We are deeply saddened by Mike’s passing. He was the kindest and most generous man on the planet.

“Mike is irreplaceable and he will be greatly missed not only by us but the fans as well. Mike was a favorite for his kindness, comedic nature as well as his musicianship.”

The Kingsmen formed in Portland, Oregon, in 1959 with singer (and guitarist) Jack Ely, drummer Lynn Easton, bass guitarist Bob Nordby, and Mitchell. As teenagers, they played high school parties, teen dances and even supermarket openings and fashion shows. Like many fledgling bands of the day, they copied what they heard on the radio: Elvis Presley, the Ventures, country music, R&B and the burgeoning Northwest Sound. In 1962, keyboardist Don Gallucci was added to the lineup.

The garage rock band started recording in 1963. Their first effort was “Louie Louie,” a song written and first recorded by Richard Berry in 1955, and played by virtually all Northwest rock and roll and R&B bands. The session cost a reported $36 at Portland’s Northwest Recorders. Jerry Dennon, a record producer in Seattle, pressed a few hundred copies on his regional label, Jerden. Northwest music fans were already familiar with the song from Berry’s version and a subsequent cover by a local band, the Wailers (1961).

The Kingsmen’s version found its way to the East Coast, where a couple of Boston radio stations played it, generating a huge response from listeners. Dennon entered into an agreement with New York’s Wand label for immediate mass pressing and distribution and “Louie Louie” rapidly broke out in several markets, climbing the charts.

As it began to drop in popularity, a controversy regarding the lyrics spread across America. The record was banned from sales and airplay in Indiana and elsewhere because teens countrywide thought the recording was riddled with obscene lyrics. That naturally stimulated even more interest, so much so that the FBI investigated the band, following them as they crisscrossed the country for over a year until the recording was deemed “unintelligible.” Wand reissued the song in 1964 (and again in 1965 and 1966). The single ultimately reached #2 on the Hot 100.

The group rode the success to become a popular concert attraction, appearing in those years with such British Invasion acts as the Rolling Stones, the Zombies, the Kinks, Peter and Gordon, Chad and Jeremy and others, as well as North American acts the Beach Boys, the Righteous Brothers, the Isley Brothers, the Turtles, the Byrds, and the Lovin’ Spoonful.

The Kingsmen were featured on the era’s top TV music shows, including Shindig, Hullabaloo, American Bandstand and Where The Action Is, and in the beach party movie, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.

They earned subsequent chart success with a 1964 cover of “Money” (#16) and the novelty hit, “The Jolly Green Giant,” about the frozen foods character, which reached #4 in 1965.

Watch the Kingsmen perform in 1965, with lead singer Jack Ely explaining the controversy of the “Louie Louie” lyrics

Ely died in 2015 at age 71. Easton died in 2020.

Mitchell is survived by his children, Samantha and Max.

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Greg Brodsky
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2 Comments so far

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  1. Peter
    #1 Peter 18 April, 2021, 00:53

    People now don’t realize what a big deal Louie Louie was but I remember playing the 45 at 16 rpm to try and decipher what they were singing,to no avail.

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  2. Eddie
    #2 Eddie 18 April, 2021, 02:21

    There were actually two different sets of lyrics. Clean & not so clean.

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