The classic line-up (1958-1961) :
CARL GARDNER, tenor
BILLY GUY, baritone
CORNELL GUNTER, second tenor
WILL "DUB" JONES, bass
The Coasters are widely regarded as the pre-eminent vocal group of the original rock n roll era. Their story is also the story of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, their songwriters-producers, who started working with a black California group called The Robins in 1953. When Leiber and Stoller formed their own Spark imprint in 1954, the Robins became the most prolific act on the label. The end of Spark Records in November 1955, following a buy-out by Atlantic/Atco, also meant the end of the(se) Robins, most of whom were not keen on signing with Atco. Leiber and Stoller convinced two members, Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn, to start a new group. Within two weeks they found a baritone (Billy Guy), a second tenor (Leon Hughes) and a guitarist (Adolph Jacobs). Thus the Coasters were born, at the end of 1955.
Leiber and Stoller were signed to Atlantic as independent producers and took their new group into the studio on January 11, 1956, which resulted in two singles. Both "Down In Mexico" (Atco 6064) and "One Kiss Led To Another" (Atco 6073) were R&B hits, peaking at # 8 and # 11 respectively, with the latter also crossing over to the pop charts (# 73). The real breakthrough of the Coasters came in the spring of 1957, with the double-sided smash "Searchin'" (# 1 R&B, # 3 pop) / "Young Blood" (# 2 R&B, # 8 pop). At this point, they were still an L.A.-based group, but when Leiber and Stoller moved to New York City in late 1957 and asked the group to join them, Nunn and Hughes quit the Coasters. (Or they were fired by the group's manager, Lester Sill, according to a different version of the story.) They were replaced by Cornell Gunter (ex-Flairs) and Will 'Dub' Jones (ex-Cadets, lead singer on "Stranded In the Jungle"), early in 1958. This line-up of the group (Gardner, Guy, Gunter, Jones) is the most famous one. They are the ones people saw in key publicity shots and the ones that were on all the memorable hits from 1958-1961, most notably the four Top 10 pop hits : "Yakety Yak" (# 1, 1958), "Charlie Brown" (# 2, 1959), "Along Came Jones" (# 9, 1959) and "Poison Ivy" (# 7, 1959). With the exception of "Along Came Jones", these were also Top 20 hits in the UK, on the London American label. Starting with "Yakety Yak", the (awesome) sax solos were provided by King Curtis, whose contributions became another important factor in the group's success.
After "Poison Ivy", the group had only one more Top 30 hit ("Little Egypt", # 23 in 1961), though there were still several smaller hits. In common with all rock n roll acts, the Coasters began to sell fewer and fewer records towards the early sixties. Their decline was synonymous with Leiber and Stoller's increasing involvement with companies other than Atlantic. Already in late 1960, outside producers were called upon to oversee Coasters sessions (Lee Hazlewood and Lester Sill with "Ridin' Hood", written by Dallas Frazier). There was only one session in 1962 and after producing "The P.T.A." in January 1963, Leiber and Stoller left Atlantic. The later Atco singles (1963-66) were often covers ("Lovey Dovey", "Money Honey", "Saturday Night Fish Fry", "She's A Yum Yum") or remakes of old Robins tunes ("I Must Be Dreaming"). Cornell Gunter had left the group in 1961 and was replaced by Earl Carroll, the former lead singer of the Cadillacs.
In 1966 they signed with Date, a Columbia subsidiary, where they were reunited with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Especially the first single, "Soul Pad"/"Down Home Girl", was very good, but the glory days were over. The Date recordings (both issued and unissued) were purchased by King Records, who (re)released three singles in 1971-1973. A remake of the 1959 Clovers hit "Love Potion Nr Nine" peaked at # 76 (pop) at the end of 1971 ; it was their final chart entry. Since the Coasters' final recording ("If I Had A Hammer", 1976), the club and concert audience has seen a plethora of Coasters groups, usually comprising one "genuine" former Coaster (Nunn, Guy, Jones, Hughes). The real Coasters are the group led by Carl Gardner, who has been with the group from the very beginning. He continued to sing lead until 2006 and now acts as their coach. Ronnie Bright, who sang the bass part for 41 years, retired in 2009 and the group now consists of Carl Gardner Jr (tenor, baritione), Primo Candelara (baritone), J.W. Lance (tenor), "Fast" Eddie Whitfield (bass) and Thomas "Curley" Palmer (their guitarist since 1962).
The Coasters were the first vocal group to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987 (Gardner, Guy, Gunter and Jones individually). More than anything else, it was the lyrics of Jerry Leiber that made the Coasters unique. (Stoller wrote the music and the arrangements). While most 50s groups sang love songs, the Coasters sang stories ("playlets" in the words of Leiber and Stoller) about real-life situations, usually with a comic twist. Although most tales were set in the ghetto and told by black characters, the subject matter was extremely diverse : poverty (What About Us), gambling (Run Red Run, Stewball), TV enter- tainment (Along Came Jones), the generation gap (Yakety Yak), sexual excitement (Young Blood, Girls Girls Girls), encounters in restaurants / bars / honky tonks (Smokey Joe's Cafe, Sorry But I'm Gonna Have To Pass, Down in Mexico), credit card refusal (Shoppin' For Clothes), garbage collecting (Wake Me, Shake Me), etcetera. The music of the Coasters was innovative, influential and intelligently produced. But most of all it was funny.
More info / acknowledgements : Those Hoodlum Friends. Fantastic resource by Claus Röhnisch from Sweden. http://www.angelfire.com/mn/coasters/ Everything you always wanted to know about the Coasters and more.
Books: - Bill Millar, The Coasters. London : W.H. Allen, 1974. 206 p. Recommended if you can still find a copy. - Carl Gardner : Yakety Yak, I Fought Back : My Life With the Coasters. Chicago : AuthorHouse Books, 2007. Autobiography, co-written with his wife, Veta Gardner.
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/coasters.htm
Dik November 2010
|These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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