SAN FRANCISCO -- "Louie Louie" made money, but the Kingsmen haven't received any royalties for at least 30 years. A federal appeals court ruled Friday the band should.
The band that recorded the hit version of the rock standard in 1963 signed a contract in 1968 that was supposed to provide them with 9 percent of the profits or licensing fees from the record.
They never got a cent, said the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1993, the Kingsmen, some of whom are still on tour, sued Gusto Records and GML, who held the rights to the recording. A federal judge rescinded the contract, granted the musicians the right to all royalties from the time they sued, and held the companies in contempt when they refused to surrender the master recording.
In a 3-0 ruling, the appeals upheld the judge's decisions in favor of the Kingsmen.
"I'm thrilled for the band that they're finally going to get what is due to them," said Jeanette Bazis, a lawyer for the five members of the group who filed the suit. She said the Kingsmen, including three of the original members, performed Thursday night to a sellout crowd in Minneapolis.
Bazis declined to estimate how much money the record was still generating. But she said recent sources of royalties include the movie "Mr. Holland's Opus," the television show "3rd Rock from the Sun," Coca-Cola commercials and compilation albums.
Robert Besser, a lawyer for Gusto Records and GML, declined comment.
"Louie Louie," written by rhythm-and-blues artist Richard Berry as a Jamaican love song in 1955, has been recorded more than 1,000 times. The hit version, by the Kingsmen in 1963, featured Jack Ely's almost-incomprehensible lead vocal -- shouted into a microphone 12 feet above his head in a primitive studio.
Rumors on high school campuses that the lyrics were obscene prompted a federal investigation, which concluded that the words were unintelligible at any speed. Berry's actual lyrics, sung by Ely, were a sailor's lament to a bartender named Louie about his lost love and contained not a hint of impropriety.
Berry sold the rights to all his songs for $750 in 1956, but got $2 million in royalties for "Louie Louie" 30 years later with the help of an artists'-rights group. The Kingsmen's contract was supposed to give them a percentage of the profits from their version, which has been included in various revival records and films over the years.
The court said it was undisputed that "the Kingsmen have never received a single penny of the considerable royalties that `Louie Louie' has produced over the past 30 years."
It was also undisputed that the companies sued by the band "have breached their agreement repeatedly," the court said.