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When ‘Louie, Louie’ almost became Washington’s state song

Nearly 60 years ago, the FBI spent months trying to decipher its reputedly obscene lyrics. Twenty years later, it almost became Washington’s state song.

Back in 1984, a weekly program premiered on KING TV called “Almost Live.” It would eventually morph into a sketch comedy show led by John Keister, but at first it was more like a Johnny Carson-style talk show with a local focus. The original host was a young comedian who grew up in Federal Way named Ross Shafer.

Shafer says that 36 years ago, it was a simpler time, and the Puget Sound area was a quieter place – and fertile ground for local comedy.

“The community was pretty sleepy, in that for years and years and years, we knew there was going to be a traffic problem from Tacoma to Seattle,” Shafer said. “And there was talk about the monorail stretching all the way” between those two cities.

“But that’s all it was, just talk,” Shafer said. “And the joke for the monorail was, ‘There’s only one monorail in downtown Seattle … and it goes from no place, to nowhere.’”

Local media was simpler, too, and local TV stations actually spent money producing local shows beyond just the standard nightly news programs.

Even so, the weekly broadcast of “Almost Live” was a shoestring operation. It aired early on Sunday evenings, and there was no marketing budget. Ross Shafer and his friend and writer for the show Jim Sharp decided they needed a publicity stunt to get some attention to attract some viewers – and maybe some advertisers – to the show.

Their first idea? A Sonny and Cher reunion. But that fizzled when both halves of the former couple weren’t interested.

Shafer says it was Jim Sharp who then came up with the idea to try and change the state song.

Since 1959, Washington’s state-sanctioned official song had been “Washington, My Home,” a little ditty composed by Helen Davis of South Bend in Pacific County.

On first inspection, it didn’t seem like “Washington, My Home” – or Helen Davis – would offer much in the way of competition.

“Nobody knew it,” said Shafer regarding Davis’ song, “and I grew up [in Washington].”

Shafer says the “Almost Live” team – including himself, Jim Sharp, and John Keister – debated which song to proffer as a replacement for “Washington, My Home.” One option was “The Witch” by The Sonics; the other was “Louie, Louie.”

“I was in a rock band in Federal Way when I was in the eighth grade. and we played ‘Louie, Louie’ several times a night because it was so easy to play,” Shafer said, telling the team, “‘Let’s try it. Let’s just see what happens.’”

The announcement went out over the KING 5 airwaves on an otherwise unassuming Sunday evening in February 1985.

“I just announced it one week on the show,” Shafer said. “And it was like a match striking kerosene.”

“Louie, Louie” was undoubtedly the right three-chord choice. It was originally written and recorded in California in 1957 by a musician named Richard Berry, but it didn’t really take off until a band in Seattle called The Wailers covered it in 1961 and scored a regional hit.

Then, when Portland band The Kingsmen did their version, that record became a national hit. Other Northwest bands covered it, too, like Paul Revere and The Raiders. And it’s probably impossible to tally the number of other forgotten bands – like Ross Shafer’s eighth-grade outfit – who found the song an easy-to-play crowd-pleaser.

It’s hard to overstate the ubiquity of “Louie, Louie” in the early to mid 1960s, and it’s no joke that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI actually did spend months trying to figure out whether or not the indecipherable lyrics were obscene.

Meanwhile, back in 1985, the idea to make “Louie, Louie” the state song caught fire and things began to move pretty fast.

The campaign launch on “Almost Live” in February was followed in March by a resolution being introduced in the Washington State Senate. On March 15, 1985, Ross Shafer spoke in support of the resolution in the Senate Chamber in Olympia. On April 12, 1985, “Louie, Louie Day” was declared, and an estimated 5,000 people showed up for a raucous rally on the State Capitol steps.

In those pre-internet times, the “Louie, Louie” state song campaign now feels like a graduate level class in old-school “going viral.”

“What publicity we got,” Ross Shafer said, still marveling at the massive response generated by the campaign.

“It just shot us so far ahead …  and we sold out every ad” on the half-hour version of “Almost Live,” Shafer said, inspiring KING 5 to expand the show to a full hour to capitalize on the ad sales. And national media came calling, too.

“I went on Dick Clark’s ‘Bloopers and Practical Jokes’ show and talked about it,” Shafer said. “Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick, had a ‘Louie, Louie’ sweatshirt he showed on The Tonight Show. And George Miller, a local comedian, went on Letterman wearing his ‘Louie, Louie’ shirt.”

Esquire Magazine also gave the campaign one of their “Dubious Achievement Awards” that year.

Back home in the Evergreen State in the summer of 1985, Ross Shafer says that Helen Davis, the composer of “Washington, My Home,” was a perfect foil.

“She didn’t want to have her song displaced,” Shafer said. “So we had a villain. It was perfect.”

Shafer said they tried to contact Davis, to ask her, “Can we convince you in some way? Have you heard ‘Louie Louie’?” Davis also figured prominently in one of the jokes Shafer developed for all the public speaking engagements he did in support of the campaign.

“She told The Spokesman Review, the Spokane paper,” Shafer said, switching into a classic “little old lady” impersonation voice, “’Ross Shafer wants to change the state song to ‘Louie, Louie.’ He should change the state flower to marijuana.’”

“It’s just silly,” Shafer said, looking back at the ‘Louie, Louie” antics aimed at Helen Davis 35 years ago. “We were just young guys poking fun at this elderly woman who for years and years, maybe decades, had had this song logged in the books” as the state’s official theme.

The legislative effort eventually stalled – maybe because when it came right down to it, no one really wanted to hurt poor Helen Davis’ feelings. At one point, there was a bill introduced in the Senate to make “Louie, Louie” the official state rock song, but that effort didn’t go anywhere in the House and ultimately also stalled. Thus, legally speaking, “Washington, My Home” remains the state song, while Woody Guthrie’s “Roll On, Columbia” became the state folk song in 1987.

Ross Shafer isn’t bothered by the campaign’s lack of success in changing the state song. He says the whole “Louie, Louie” saga was always more about the journey than the destination. There was something universally appealing, Shafer says, about the “David and Goliath” battle of a little TV show versus the huge and ancient institution of the Washington State Legislature.

Shafer’s journey after “Louie, Louie” and his stint at KING 5 took him to years of work on national TV. After that, he reinvented himself as a business consultant, author, and motivational speaker based in Colorado. He’s published nine books, and before COVID-19, traveled the world for speaking engagements.

The legacy of the effort here in Washington is hard to measure, but historians in Ohio credit the “Louie, Louie” campaign for inspiring lawmakers in the Buckeye State to adopt “Hang On, Sloopy,” by native sons The McCoys, as the official state rock song.

Looking back, it seems now that what Shafer, Jim Sharp, John Keister and the others at “Almost Live” were doing with “Louie, Louie” was more than just a publicity stunt.

Aside from drawing attention to their own TV show, they were also honoring the achievements of some aging guys from past-their-peak local bands. Maybe those guys hadn’t gotten all the credit they deserved the first time around for putting out some pretty cool records and bringing people of a certain age a lot of joy.

“There’s something interesting about music and how it’s a timestamp for all of us,” Shafer said.

The “Louie, Louie” campaign, Shafer says, “elevated The Kingsmen, who weren’t red-hot [in 1985], Paul Revere and The Raiders, who weren’t red hot then either … but we were honoring how they made us feel at some point in our lives.”

When we hear music from certain points in our life “we kind of go back in this time machine,” Shafer said.

“Maybe that’s also what was happening to the citizens of Washington state with ‘Louie, Louie,’” he added.

And for that, maybe we should all be thankful for Sonny and Cher.

“A year after they told us ‘no,’” Shafer said, “they reunited on Letterman.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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