The Coasters Biography

The illustrious career of the Coasters, the pre-eminent vocal group of the early rock ‘n’ roll era, was built on a remarkable body of cleverly comic R&B songs for Atco Records fashioned by their producers, Leiber And Stoller. Under their direction, the Coasters exchanged the crooning of ballads favoured by most groups of the era for robust and full-throated R&B shouting. The group came together in Los Angeles, California, USA in October 1955 from remnants of the Robins, who had a dispute with their producers/songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The original Coasters comprised two ex-Robins, Carl Gardner (Carl Edward Gardner, 29 April 1928, Tyler, Texas, USA; lead) and Bobby Nunn (b. Ulysses B. Nunn, 20 September 1925, Birmingham, Alabama, USA, d. 5 November 1986, Los Angeles, California, USA; bass), plus Leon Hughes (b. Thomas Leon Hughes, 26 August 1932, Los Angeles County, California, USA; tenor), and Billy Guy (b. Frank Phillips Jnr., 20 June 1936, Itasca, Texas, USA, d. 12 November 2002, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; lead and baritone). Hughes was replaced briefly in 1957 by Young Jessie (b. Obie Donmell Jessie, 28 December 1936, Dallas, Texas, USA), who in turn was replaced by ex-Flairs Cornell Gunter (b. 14 November 1938, Los Angeles, California, USA, d. 26 February 1990, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA). In January 1958, Nunn was replaced by ex-Cadets Will ‘Dub’ Jones (b. Will J. Jones, 14 May 1928, Shreveport, Louisiana, USA, d. 16 January 2000, Long Beach, California, USA). At the start of the following year original guitar player Adolph Jacobs (b. Herman Adolph Jacobsen, 27 April 1931, Oakland, California, USA) was replaced by Albert ‘Sonny’ Forriest (b. Elbert McKinley Forriest, 21 May 1934, Pendleton, North Carolina, USA, d. 10 January 1999, Capital Heights, Maryland, USA), who became a contracted member of the line-up. ex-Cadillacs Earl ‘Speedo’ Carroll (b. Gregory Carroll, 2 November 1937, New York City, New York, USA) replaced Gunter in mid-1961.

The Coasters first charted with ‘Down In Mexico’ (US R&B Top 10) in 1956, but the superb double-sided hit from 1957, ‘Searchin’’ (US R&B number 1 and pop number 3) and ‘Young Blood’ (US R&B number 2 and pop Top 10) established the group as major rock ‘n’ roll stars (in the UK, ‘Searchin’’ reached number 30). The classic line-up of Gardner, Guy, Gunter and Jones enjoyed three more giant hits, namely ‘Yakety Yak’ (US R&B and pop number 1 in 1958), ‘Charlie Brown’ (US R&B and pop number 2 in 1959), and ‘Poison Ivy’ (US R&B number 1 and pop Top 10 in 1959). In the UK, ‘Yakety Yak’ went to number 12, ‘Charlie Brown’ to number 6, and ‘Poison Ivy’ to number 15, the group’s last chart record in the UK. By this time, they were generally regarded as one of the wittiest exponents of teenage growing problems to emerge from the rock ‘n’ roll era. By the mid-60s, however, the lustre had worn off, as the hits increasingly emphasized the comic lyrics to the detriment of the music. The Coasters parted company with Atco in 1966, and renewed their partnership with Leiber And Stoller (who had left the label in 1963) with several sides for the CBS Records subsidiary, Date Records. After a one-off single for Turntable (1969’s ‘Act Right’), the long-serving Gardner and Guy enjoyed a brief comeback in late 1971, when a reworking of ‘Love Potion Number Nine’ for the King label broke into the Billboard Hot 100.

The Coasters have continued in the subsequent decades as an oldies act, fracturing into several different groups playing the nostalgia circuit although most authorities accept the Carl Gardner led Coasters as the genuine article. Personnel in the durable Gardner’s line-up has included Vernon Harrell (baritone), Ronnie Bright (b. 18 October 1938, New York, USA; bass, ex-Valentines), Jimmy Norman (b. 12 August 1937, Nashville, Tennessee, USA; baritone), Thomas ‘Curley’ Palmer (b. 1927, Dallas, Texas, USA; guitar), Alvin Morse (tenor), and his son Carl ‘Mickey’ Gardner Jnr. (baritone). Sadly, all of the original members, except Jacobs, have at various times attempted to cash in on the Coasters name. Bobby Nunn launched the Coasters, Mark II, and when he died from congestive heart failure in 1986 his group carried on under the leadership of Billy Richards Jnr. Leon Hughes formed his own tribute group, the Original Coasters. Billy Guy, who worked with the Gardner led Coasters up until 1973, was involved with the World Famous Coasters and Billy Guy’s Coasters until his death in November 2002. Cornell Gunter (who changed the spelling of his surname to Gunther in later years) was shot dead on 26 February 1990. He had also formed his own version of the Coasters, known as the Fabulous Coasters, after leaving the group in June 1961. Gardner, Guy, Jones and Gunter’s induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in January 1987 went some of the way towards restoring the group’s tarnished image.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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