Carl Gardner (vocals; born April 29, 1928, died June 12, 2011), Cornell Gunter (vocals; born November 14, 1938, died February 26, 1990), Billy Guy (vocals; born June 20, 1936, died November 5, 2002), Will "Dub" Jones (vocals; born May 14, 1928, died January 16, 2000)
From 1956 to 1961, the Coasters released a string of classic singles that reflected the life of the American teenager with keen wit and hot, rocking harmonies. Invariably those songs were written, produced and arranged by the duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The union of a black vocal group with two Jewish songwriters was one of the most propitious in rock history. Leiber and Stoller’s witty, street-smart “playlets” were sung with sly, clowning humor by the Coasters and accompanied by the hot, honking “yakety sax” of King Curtis. The Coasters’ parlayed their R&B roots into rock and roll hits by delivering Leiber and Stoller’s serio-comic tunes in an uptempo doo-wop style. Beneath the humor the songs often made incisive points about American culture for those willing to dig a little deeper.
Leiber has described the Coasters’ style as “a white kid’s view of a black person’s conception of white society.” In fact, their success showed how thin was the line between rhythm & blues and rock and roll in the Fifties. “Our songs… were R&B hits that white kids were attracted to,” Leiber said in a 1992 interview. “And if people bought it, it became rock and roll.”
The Coasters placed 14 songs on the R&B charts, eight of which crossed over to the pop Top 40. From 1957 to 1959 the Coasters unleashed a half dozen singles that dominated the charts in one of the most formidable runs of the rock and roll era: “Searchin’ (Number One R&B, Number Three pop), “Young Blood” (Number Two R&B, Number Eight pop), “Yakety Yak” (Number One R&B, Number One pop), “Charlie Brown” (Number Two R&B, Number Two pop), “Along Came Jones” (Number 14 R&B, Number Nine pop) and “Poison Ivy” (Number One R&B, Number Seven pop). Leiber and Stoller remarked that the Coasters “were fun to work with, they were fun to be with. They were a great bunch of clowns, and they made our songs sing.” With such a potent combination of writing and performing talent, the Coasters had a wealth of lesser known but equally fascinating treasures beyond their well-known hits, such as “That Is Rock and Roll,” “Shopping for Clothes,” “Run Red Run,” “What About Us” and “Idol with the Golden Head.”
The roots of the Coasters date back to 1949 with the formation of the Robins, a black vocal group, in Los Angeles. In their early years, they were affiliated with producer Johnny Otis and recorded for Savoy Records. In 1951, they cut a song by Leiber and Stoller entitled “That’s What the Good Book Says.” In 1954, the Robins signed to Leiber and Stoller’s label, Spark Records, where they cut some notable R&B sides. These include such early examples of the duo’s narrative style as “Riot in Cell Block #9,” “Framed” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” In 1955, Atlantic Records offered Leiber and Stoller an independent production deal with their Atco subsidiary, which meant a move from the West Coast to the East Coast. The Robins came to Atco as part of the package, but the move divided the group. Bass singer Bobby Nunn and tenor Carl Gardner headed to New York City, were they recruited tenor Leon Hughes and baritone Billy Guy, and rechristened themselves the Coasters – a sly reference to their coast-to-coast relocation. The group’s classic lineup solidified with the addition of tenor Cornell Gunter and bass Will “Dub” Jones (a former member of the Cadets and the Jacks), who replaced Hughes and Nunn, respectively.
In 1957, the Coasters topped the R&B charts and made the pop Top 10 with their double-sided single “Searchin’” and “Young Blood.” Over the next two years, the Coasters released a series of hit singles filled with instantly adaptable slang and timeless humor. “Yakety Yak” comically addressed the generation gap long before that term was coined, while “Charlie Brown” was a character study of a class clown that featured Will “Dub” Jones’ unforgettable line: “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?” By the end of the decade, they’d carved out a legacy for themselves as purveyors of riotously funny rock and roll records with a solid R&B underpinning.
The Coasters were also popular in England, where the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other British Invasion bands covered their songs. Ironically, it was the rise of the British Invasion that spelled commercial decline for such Fifties icons as the Coasters. Leiber and Stoller left Atlantic in 1964 to found their own label, Red Bird, while the Coasters continued to record for Atco through 1966. The two parties reunited in 1967 when the Coasters signed with Columbia Records’ Date subsidiary. The Coasters and Leiber and Stoller last worked together in 1973. Over the ensuing decades, various Coasters lineups continued to work the oldies circuit.