Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



US R&B vocal group. They began in Los Angeles as the Robins, recording with Johnny Otis on Savoy and other labels (R&B no. 1 '50 with 'Double Crossing Blues'). They met the writing and production team of Leiber & Stoller '53 (see their entry) and became the biggest act on their Spark label including 'Framed', 'Riot In Cell Block No. 9', 'Smokey Joe's Cafe'. The bass voice uttering witty or doleful comment was a stylistic innovation in R&B, though the Ink Spots had done something like it; it was Richard Berry (who wrote 'Louie Louie'; see entry for the Kingsmen) who did the narration on 'Cell Block'. Atlantic was impressed by 'Smokey Joe', bought the Robins' catalogue and brought Leiber and Stoller in to produce; lead singer Carl Gardner (b 29 April 1928, Tyler TX; d 12 June 2011, Port St Lucie FL) and bass Bobby Nunn (b c1925; d 5 November 1986) recruited Bill Guy (b 20 June 1936, Itasca TX; d 12 November 2002, Las Vegas) and Leon Hughes, changed the group's name to the Coasters after their West Coast origin (their former colleagues, whose management disapproved of the Atlantic signing, continued briefly on Whippet). The Coasters made the R&B top ten first time with 'Down In Mexico' '56; two-sided 'Searchin'/'Young Blood' was no. 1 R&B, 3 and 8 respectively on the pop chart '57, the latter with more suggestive lyrics and often revived since. Hughes, who was more dancer than singer, had been replaced by Young Jessie, then Cornell Gunter (ex-Flairs; he later sometimes spelled his name Gunther; his sisters were also recording artists, Shirley Gunter with the Flairs and Zola Taylor with the Platters; he was shot to death in Las Vegas 26 February 1990). Nunn gave way to Will 'Dub' Jones (ex-Cadets); this lineup made classics 'Yakety Yak' (no. 1 pop), 'Charlie Brown' (2), 'Along Came Jones' (9), 'Poison Ivy' (7). Every record was carefully pre-planned with up to 60 takes and much editing to achieve the desired effect, but they sounded spontaneous, with witty sax interjections by King Curtis, guitar solos by Mickey Baker, Phil Spector, Barney Kessell (their regular guitarist was Adolph Jacobs, succeeded by Sonny Forriest late '59). The bass payoffs by Jones entered the language of the era (from 'Charlie Brown': 'Why is ev'rybody always pickin' on me?'; from 'Yakety Yak': 'Don't talk back!').

Leiber & Stoller were foolishly accused of creating black stereotypes; they developed existing themes of universal interest: 'Riot In Cell Block No. 9', Leiber told Rolling Stone, 'wasn't a ghetto song. It was inspired by the Gangbusters radio drama ... People have said, ''These are protest songs.'' Bullshit. These were cartoons.' They told Ted Fox, 'The most fun we ever had was with the Coasters. We'd be falling on the floor -- all of us -- staggering around the room holding our bellies because we were laughing so hard.' Dallas Frazier wrote 'Ridin' Hood', and 'Shoppin' For Clothes' was inspired by Kent Harris's 'Clothesline', but most of the Coasters' stuff was written by Leiber and Stoller. Their total of 19 Hot 100 entries included 'I'm A Hog For You', 'Run Red Run', 'Wait A Minute', 'Little Egypt' in top 40; Earl 'Speedo' Carroll (ex-Cadillacs) replaced Gunter '61. They also made an album of standards which disappeared without trace.

A few more hits included 'Let's Go Get Stoned' '65; they were reunited with Leiber & Stoller '67 on CBS's Date label, but CBS didn't promote the records and the songs had greater success with other artists, e.g. Monkees with 'D. W. Washburn', Rolling Stones' 'Down Home Girl': the moment had gone, except for a minor '71 hit with a cover of Clovers' 'Love Potion No. 9' (salvaged when some of the Date tracks turned up on King). No less than Curtis Mayfield called the Coasters 'my biggest inspiration'. Gunter was a good entertainer and led phoney Coasters acts (toured UK '66); he didn't own the name but it was hard to stop him. Various lineups worked revival shows led by Nunn, Gardner, or Hughes, with Guy and Jones pairing; Nunn appeared in Phoenix a few days before his death; another former Coaster who met a bad end was Nathaniel 'Buster' Wilson, shot in 1980. Two-CD compilation 50 Coastin' Hits, one-CD Very Best Of on Rhino. The Coasters '74 by Bill Millar was a definitive book.