“If rock ´n´ roll had produced nothing but the Coasters and Leiber and Stoller, it would still have commanded attention as the sound embodiment of a time and generation. They reflected the world of the young with understanding, good humor, and social insight. This was rock´n´roll at its best – ebullient, energizing, entertaining, expressive, and danceable”, Arnold Shaw wrote in his book “The Rockin´ 50s” (1974). The Coasters are widely regarded as the pre-eminent vocal group of the original rock ´n´ roll era. “There never was – nor will there ever be – another group quite like the Coasters. Although they worked within the standard conventions of vocal group harmony, their signal achievement was to create – or to have created for them – a variety of comedic roles that both celebrated and satirized the mores of contemporary American life without falling victim to racial stereotyping. It´s impossible to gauge which was the luckier party, whether the Coasters were most fortunate to have Leiber and Stoller as their providers or the songwriters to have such capable vocalists to draw out the nuances and downright insinuations in their songs”, Neil Slaven stated in a review in “Blues & Rhythm” magazine in late 1997.
The Coasters truly deserve their high rankings in music history – hand-chosen professional performers, all debuting during the early years of rhythm & blues and contributing to the emerging of original rock ´n´ roll – exciting individuals, creating the best of vocal group harmonies ever waxed.
The foursome was created through a recording / producing contract signed by Atlantic Records on September 28, 1955. A new vocal group was born that day. It had its origins in the Los Angeles, California based vocal sextet the Robins, originally promoted by Johnny Otis and recording since 1949 with Bobby Nunn – born September 20, 1925 in Birmingham, Alabama – as bass/lead singer. It was the young producing /composing team of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, who with manager /salesman Lester Sill persuaded Bobby Nunn and Carl Gardner, lead tenor vocalist with the Robins from 1954 on Leiber-Stoller´s tiny Spark label in L.A., to leave that group and launch the new group – called The Coasters. Gardner – born April 29, 1928 in Tyler, Texas – is still the Coasters´ spokesman and lead singer today. Most of the Robins´ West Coast hits from Spark were later issued on Coasters compilations (a.o. RIOT IN CELL BLOCK #9, FRAMED, LOOP DE LOOP MAMBO, and SMOKEY JOE´S CAFE).
Attracted by the success of SMOKEY JOE´S CAFE with Gardner on lead vocal, Atlantic Records signed an independent producer/composer contract with Leiber & Stoller on that historic day of September 28, 1955. Two hand-chosen Californians, Billy Guy (a young, slick baritone, born June 20, 1936 in Itasca, Texas) from the duo Bip & Bop, and Leon Hughes (born August 26, 1932 in Los Angeles County, who had sung with the Hollywood Flames and the Lamplighters), completed the original Coasters line-up. They were contracted to Atlantic´s new subsidiary Atco Records (ratified in 1959 for a further seven years). Through the Coasters Leiber-Stoller launched some of the most entertaining songs of the ´50s. The first Coasters recording was DOWN IN MEXICO from January 11, 1956 (Carl did great versions of that song in later years). The record became a “sleeper” R&B hit – followed by the minor Pop hit ONE KISS LED TO ANOTHER
The group now hit the road for national promotion and produced R&B´s most famous double-sided smash in 1957 (with Gardner and Guy lead singers on one side each). YOUNG BLOOD (the original A-side) hit the national R&B Best Seller Chart # 1 on June 3 and the week after its flip, SEARCHIN´, occupied that same spot for a further 12 weeks and also went to # 1 on the R&B Disc Jockey and Juke Box Charts (with “Young Blood” at # 2). Both titles also became national Pop Top Ten hits, staying on the charts for half a year. This success stands as a rather unique achievement in American music history. Young Jessie had substituted for Hughes on that record. After three less successful, but exciting issues, (IDOL WITH THE GOLDEN HEAD, SWEET GEORGIA BROWN, and DANCE!) the Coasters reformed and – with Jerry & Mike – moved from the West Coast to New York. Bobby Nunn and Leon Hughes stayed in California, where Nunn later launched his own “The Coasters, Mark II”. Nunn died of heart failure on November 5, 1986 in Los Angeles. His group, now led by Billy Richards Jr, continued to tour as “Billy Richards’ Coasters”. Hughes also started his own Coasters tribute group – “The Original Coasters”.
Two new group members were recruited by the Coasters´ prolific manager Lester Sill and shared leads on the first N.Y. Coasters Atco effort, ZING! WENT THE STRINGS OF MY HEART, recorded on March 17, 1958 in Atantic´s new studios. Both new-comers were former L.A. experienced group singers – Will “Dub” Jones, successful bass lead with the Cadets, born in Shreveport, Louisiana on May 14, 1928 – and Cornell Gunter, lead with the Flairs, born November 14, 1938 in Coffeyville, Kansas. The two joined Gardner and Guy to establish the classic New York quartet that recorded all the other famous Coasters’ golden million sellers. YAKETY YAK (Zing’s A-side – with the significant unison singing) went No. 1 Pop in 1958 (and received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999), although its follow-up THE SHADOW KNOWS failed. CHARLIE BROWN (with its great flip THREE COOL CATS) became an international hit and was followed by ALONG CAME JONES (a hit in 1959 b/w THAT IS ROCK & ROLL). The double-sider POISON IVY b/w I´M A HOG FOR YOU became the fourth million-seller. The classic Coasters had a fifth member in guitarist Adolph Jacobs born April 27, 1931 in Oakland, California, who was succeeded by a Coasters employee, Sonny Forriest, on WHAT ABOUT US b/w RUN RED RUN, which was the last single of the highly successful year of 1959.
The productions of the Coasters´ Atco recordings were far superior to any contemporary group efforts (using the best musicians available, especially Texan King Curtis´ fruity sax breaks) with the lyrics neatly deriding aspects of teenage and/or black ghetto life. The group also worked out hilarious stage routines and became the most professional act in late ´50s Rhythm & Blues and early ´60s International Pop.
In 1960 the Coasters hit with WAKE ME, SHAKE ME and waxed one of their all-time greatest recordings, SHOPPIN´ FOR CLOTHES (with Guy and Jones sharing lead vocals). The flip was THE SNAKE AND THE BOOK WORM (one of the few tracks not written by Leiber-Stoller). That year they also released their under-rated, but qualitative “One By One” LP. In 1961 they hit with WAIT A MINUTE (recorded in 1957). After the group´s last U.S. Pop Top 30 hit entry, LITTLE EGYPT (YING-YANG), Cornell Gunter left the group in June, 1961. He formed his own “Fabulous Coasters” a couple of years later. Gunter died in his car by a gun shot from an unknown in Las Vegas on January 26, 1990. Remnants of his group tour as “Cornell Gunter´s Coasters, Inc”.
The famous former lead of the Cadillacs, Earl “Speedo” Carroll, born November 2, 1937 in New York City, became new second tenor in the qualitative line-up of the Coasters, which continued to record for Atco through early 1966, with a.o. the live recording of T´AIN´T NOTHIN´ TO ME (originally issued on a various-artists “Apollo Saturday Night” LP – hitting the Cash Box R&B Chart #20 in March, 1964); and the original recording of LET´S GO GET STONED. Three of the mid ’60s Coasters issues on Atco included a re-rendition of I MUST BE DREAMING (originally recorded by the Robins), MONEY HONEY (a great rendition of the original Drifters’ hit) and SHE’S A YUM-YUM (the Coasters’ last Atco single) – produced by King Curtis. Leiber-Stoller had left Atco/Atlantic in 1963, but the vocal quartet renewed their collaboration with the team in late 1966, recording for the CBS subsidiary Date Records, for which the Coasters on November 18. 1966 waxed SOUL PAD b/w DOWN HOME GIRL. In October 1967 they recorded SHE CAN (later reissued as TALKIN´ ´BOUT A WOMAN) and the wonderful original of D.W. WASHBURN (released in 1968 and reissued on King Records in the ´70s).
By the time of the Coasters´ revival Will Jones had left for new tasks (in New York and later California), replaced by Ronnie Bright, born October 18, 1938 in New York City and original bass singer in Harlem´s early ´50s group the Valentines. Billy Guy, the great comedian of the group, had started his attempts as a solo artist back in 1963 (still recording and occasionally performing with the group up to 1973), substituted first by Vernon Harrell and later by the hard-working soul veteran Jimmy Norman – born August 12, 1937 in Nashville, Tennessee. He had sung with Jesse Belvin´s Chargers and became a regular Coaster in the revival line-up of the ´70s. The group performed all over U.S. and toured Europe several times. They even made a brief come-back on the U.S. Hot 100 Chart with a re-rendition of the Clovers’ classic LOVE POTION NUMBER NINE (for King Records in the winter of 1971/72 with Carl Gardner as happy lead vocal) and issued a great album produced by Leiber-Stoller on King, titled “The Coasters On Broadway”- The Coasters´ Date/King sides are to be found on a recommended Highland/DeLuxe CD titled “20 Greatest Hits” (also including some Billy Guy “phony Coasters” bonus recordings). The group continued to make records – although the hits came dry. With Gardner, Speedo, Bright and Guy they had recorded for Lloyd Price’s Turntable in 1969 (ACT RIGHT and THE WORLD IS CHANGING, produced by Jimmy Norman). Later Ronnie Bright sang lead on CHECK MR. POPEYE, and the group, now with Guy definately out, did a single for Wilson Pickett’s Wicked label (HUSH DON’T TALK ABOUT IT).
By the early ´80s Carroll had left to reform his Cadillacs, and Guy and Jones sporadically acted with a special “World Famous Coasters” in California. Will “Dub” Jones died in Long Beach, California on January 16, 2000 at the age of 71 after several years of semi-retirement. Billy Guy died in his sleep at home in Las Vegas, Nevada on November 5, 2002.
In 1987 the Coasters (Gardner, Guy, Jones, and Gunter individually) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – the first vocal group receiving that honor. The original Coasters´ by-then touring line-up, still fronted by Carl Gardner, included Norman, Bright, and veteran guitarist Thomas Palmer – born in El Paso, Texas on August 15, 1929, who had joined the group already in early 1962 (debuting on the notorious THE CLIMB).
Carl Gardner & The Coasters have – despite competition from bogus and off-spring Coasters groups (at times more than ten different “Coasters” sang the hits on stage), been heavily engaged in live bookings during the late ´80s and the whole of the ´90s into the new millennium (even performing at the Carnegie Hall). Carl Gardner has been up-front all the time (leading a super-funky live version of SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE – the title which was used for the famous Leiber-Stoller musical). In the late ´90s “Billy Guy´s Coasters” emerged on the scene, semi-coached by Billy Guy – that group (managed by Larry Marshak) nowadays tours as “The Cornell Gunter Coasters”. Grady Chapman and Bobby Sheen (of the late Robins) also had a Coasters group (and even Randy Jones, who sang with Gunter´s and Nunn´s groups, had his Coasters group). By the spring of 1998 the true Coasters´ again became a singing quartet (with Palmer still on guitar), when Alvin Morse (born in February, 1951) joined – and in time for Gardner´s 70th birthday Carl Gardner Jr (petnamed Mickey – born in 1955) replaced Jimmy Norman, who had left the group to start a new reggae career. By the end of July, 2001 Joe Lance Williams (aka J. W. Lance, who had sung with Marshak’s Coasters), born June 16, 1949, started to substitute for Gardner Jr. In November, 2004 Carl Jr returned to his father’s group and Lance stayed. The Coasters are probably America´s most exciting veteran vocal group of today. We truly haven´t heard the last from them yet!
Almost all of the Coasters´ recordings are available on CD today. Rhino´s “The Very Best of The Coasters” is their most worthwhile best-of anthology, but Rhino Records of the U.S. has also issued a superb double CD titled “50 Coastin´ Classics”. In the U.K. Sequel Records issued a 4 CD-series in 1997, containing all 100 of the Coasters´ Atco recordings (with album titles identical to the group´s original LPs, including a bunchful of bonus tracks and alternate stereo takes); and in May, 2000 a wonderful (probably bootleg though) CD titled “Charlie Brown” was issued, featuring outtakes, studio chat and unissued Atco tracks from 1958. Lately three of the original Coasters Atco albums have been reissued on Collectables, and in November 2005 “50 Golden Years with The Coasters” containing rare and unissued tracks was released, celebrating founder Carl Gardner’s 50 years as lead singer. On November 5, 2005 Carl Gardner Jr officially took over lead vocals from his father, who semi-retired.
– Claus Röhnisch