The Green Giant, Louie and the FBI
Who knew in the mid-1960s that FBI agents promoted Green Giant while tailing a rock ’n’ roll band over the controversial song “Louie, Louie,” and handed out cans of vegetables to concert-goers?
The J. Edgar Hoover-era FBI, “Louie, Louie,” and the Green Giant all in the same breath?
It’s certainly a story of strange bedfellows; one that happened in 1965 involving two songs, two controversies and one Green Giant, according to Mike Mitchell, an original guitarist for the Kingsmen, the group known for its top 10 hits “Louie, Louie” and “The Jolly Green Giant.”
“No one’s really asked much about the Kingsmen’s ties to the Green Giant before, especially with all the controversy surrounding ‘Louie, Louie,’ ” says the 69-year-old Mitchell, who still plays with the band.
A year after “Louie, Louie” left the charts, the Kingsmen, a five-member garage band from Portland, Ore., toured the U.S., promoting “The Jolly Green Giant,” a novelty tune about the colossal mascot’s woes trying to get a date. (The lyrics note that he’s “big and mean.”)
The band’s new song caused some hubbub because Minnesota-based The Green Giant Co. (which was acquired by Pillsbury in 1979) was upset that the Kingsmen did not get permission to use the mascot.
The uproar may have cost the band a gig on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but did not bring the level of controversy as their 1963 hit “Louie, Louie.”
FBI investigates ‘Louie, Louie’
For nearly two years, the FBI investigated the Kingsmen over “Louie, Louie,” a party-romping tune that has become one of the world’s most recognized and controversial songs. School officials in Florida, parents in Texas and even the governor of Indiana claimed its lyrics were obscene.
Remembers Mitchell: “[FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover wanted us in prison. He said we were corrupting the moral fiber of our youth, and wanted to use us as an example that people can’t get away with this.”
But the lyrics weren’t obscene at all, just unintelligible.
Hoover assigned FBI agents to follow the Kingsmen on its 1965 tour, and listen to “Louie, Louie” to find out what the fuss was about.
“Every night, they were listening at the speakers,” says Mitchell. “They were nice guys wearing skinny ties, black jackets and black suits.”
The band played six nights a week, and the FBI agents – initially four, and then later two – attended most of the concerts for about 18 months.
The band, whose members were in their late teens and early 20s, had been forewarned when FBI agents arrived at their hotel room and told them what they were doing.
Though the Kingsmen were touring on the strength of “The Jolly Green Giant,” it was “Louie, Louie” that the fans and the FBI wanted to hear.
Permission from Green Giant?
At the time, the Green Giant was a trademarked mascot owned by The Green Giant Co.
When “The Jolly Green Giant” was released in early 1965, some company officials threatened to sue the band for trademark infringement, Mitchell said. The song was almost a throwaway as band member Lynn Easton wrote the lyrics in about 20 minutes, inspired after hearing the Green Giant jingle on the radio.
But not everyone at the company thought it was a bad thing.
“I know the East coast division of the Green Giant’s owner threatened to sue us, but the West coast division sent us cases of beans, corn, peas and whatever else,” he says.
Don Osell, the former chief marketing officer for The Green Giant Co., worked as a brand manager for the company in those days. He remembers the song, but has no recollection of the controversy.
“I can tell you this: We would not have given approval,” Osell says.
However, he noted that the scenario could have played out the way Mitchell remembers it. In those years, The Green Giant Co. relied on regional brokers who served as independent sales agents to distribute its products.
“It’s possible that the Kingsmen or their agent could have found out who represented Green Giant in Portland, called that independent business and heard ‘That’s a really good idea. Go ahead,’ and given them our vegetables. But I am conjecturing. Back in Minnesota, we would have said, ‘No, and under no circumstances.’”
FBI agents hand out Green Giant vegetables
Mitchell says the Kingsmen also received a 12-foot high, three-piece thick plastic prop of the Green Giant that was placed at the back of the stage during every concert.
But what were they going to do with all those cases of Green Giant vegetables? The band would give them away. And here’s where the eager-listening FBI agents came in handy.
“After our shows, we’d often throw ties and drumsticks to the audiences for souvenirs, but we couldn’t throw cans of vegetables because they might hurt somebody. So the FBI guys helped us pass them out to the kids,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell has fond memories of those days, but said the Kingsmen didn’t get the chance to taste the Green Giant vegetables.
“Well, we didn’t eat them while on tour. There was no way we could cook them on our Greyhound bus,” he says.
And as for the verdict on whether “Louie, Louie” was obscene, the U.S. government ended its investigation into the song in December 1965 after an assistant U.S. attorney determined there was no evidence that the Kingsmen violated obscenity laws.
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