Born 11 April 1935, Extension, Louisiana
Richard Berry was an important figure of the early and mid-'50s L.A. R&B scene. Born in Louisiana, he moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was only one year old. He grew up listening to the contemporary R&B sounds and, by his early teens, he was already extremely adept at writing and singing songs.
In 1952 Berry was one of the founding members of the Flairs, along with Young Jessie, Cornel Gunter and two others. The next year the group started recording for Modern Records and for the next three years Richard was the top utility man for Modern and its two subsidiaries, RPM and Flair. But perhaps his most significant contribution during this period was made for another label (Spark), as an uncredited member of the Robins. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had written a song called "Riot In Cell Block # 9". Early attempts to record the number with the Robins proved frustrating. The group's bass singer, Bobby Nunn, just didn't have the menacing low voice that the song required. Enter Richard Berry. Being contracted to Modern, he didn't mention his moonlighting session to the Bihari brothers, but they had no trouble recognizing Berry's voice, after "Riot" became a West Coast hit in the summer of 1954. Instead of being angry, Joe Bihari asked, "Why don't you do something like that for us?". So Berry wrote "The Big Break", another prison song, with a melody and arrangement that were almost identical to "Riot In Cell Block # 9". It was Richard's first record under his own name. Towards the end of 1954 he left the Flairs, who were not happy about his recording on his own. Berry started working with a female group called the Dreamers, originally a sextet, later a quartet, who would develop into the Blossoms. Berry told Jim Dawson : "The Dreamers wanted to sing as a group, but didn't really have a lead singer. So I started working with them, writing some songs, and I took them in to record with me." Gloria Jones of the Dreamers : "Richard Berry was a beautiful friend. He looked after us when we went out on the road and was like a mother to us." The four singles by Berry and the Dreamers (three on Flair and one on RPM) are quite worthwhile, especially "Good Love", "Jelly Roll" and "Daddy Daddy".
Richard took another uncredited vocal as Etta James's deep-voiced sparring partner on "Roll With Me Henry", aka "The Wallflower", one of the biggest R&B hits of 1955 (four weeks at # 1). When Little Richard became hot in 1956, the Biharis wanted Berry to record in that style and took him to New Orleans for a session with the same band (including Lee Allen on tenor sax and Earl Palmer on drums) that had backed Richard on "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally". But Berry didn't feel comfortable with feral rock n roll and many, many takes were required before "Yama Yama Pretty Mama" (now considered a rock n roll classic) and "Angel Of My Life" were in the can. A third track from this session, the equally wild "Mad About You", remained unheard for 26 years, until it was included on an Ace LP in the UK in 1982.
Eventually, Richard parted ways with Modern Records after frustations over songwriter royalties. Waiting for his Modern contract to expire, he signed with Max Feirtag's fledgling Flip label, but still seemed hesitant about a solo career. He used an already existing group called the Pharaohs for his new recordings on Flip, trying out a new, Latin influenced sound. Stacked away on the flip of the first Flip single by Richard Berry and the Pharaohs ("You Are My Sunshine", Flip 321) was a little ditty called "Louie Louie", a calypso-styled song that Berry had based on "El Loca Cha Cha" by Rene Touzet. It would be an exaggeration to say that "Louie Louie" went unnoticed at the time of its release in March 1957. It sold well enough to be reissued as the A-side, with "Rock Rock Rock" on the reverse, later in 1957. But his future wife Dorothy wanted an expensive wedding ring and Berry decided to sell the rights to "Louie Louie" and three other songs to Max Feirtag for $ 750.
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 # 2. In the decades since then, "Louie Louie" became one of the most oft-covered rock standards of all time; there probably exist well over 1,000 versions. An entire book has been written about the song (Dave Marsh, Louie Louie : the history and mythology of the world's most famous rock 'n' roll song. New York : Hyperion, 1993 ; paperback 2004 still in print) and it was also the subject of an obscenity investigation by the CIA. Fortunately there was a happy ending for Berry - in 1985 he regained the rights to "Louie Louie", assuring him of upwards of $ 50,000 a year on royalties.
In February 1996, Richard Berry performed for the final time, reuniting with the Pharaohs and the Dreamers for a benefit concert in Long Beach, California. But his health declined and he died of heart failure on January 23, 1997, aged 61.
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Acknowledgements : Jim Dawson (liner notes for Ace 355), Opal Louis Nations (liner notes for Ace 829), Eric Predoehl (liner notes for Ace 977), Tony Rounce (liner notes for Ace 1029), Richie Unterberger (All Music Guide).
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