Searchin' : The Story of The Coasters©2005JCMarion

One of the West Coast's earliest R & B vocal groups had been the Robins, originally known as The Four Robins who had been formed with the help and assistance of Johnny Otis, truly a seminal influence of all West Coast musicians. By the summer of 1955 The Robins had recorded a number of hits mostly for the Spark label which was owned by two Baltimore born R & B entrepreneurs named Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. In September of 1955 the producing duo closed shop on Spark Records and convinced original Robin Bobby Nunn and later member Carl Gardner to leave the group and join a newly formed quartet with Billy Guy and Leon Hughes to become known as The Coasters alluding to their California roots. The group hooked up with Lieber-Stoller to record for Atlantic Records brand new New York based subsidiary label to be called Atco.
The first release by the new group would be a harbinger of things to come. “Down In Mexico” on # 6064 was a two and a half minute tragic-comedy in song. Complete with interesting characters, chord and tempo changes, and the ever present “moral of the story” ending, “Down In Mexico” was a unique new departure from the usual love ballads and rocking up tempo dance tunes. Those that were aware of The Robins history though had gotten a glimpse of this kind of song-story with tunes such as “Riot In Cell Block # 9” and “Framed”. The flip side of “Mexico” was a tune called “Turtle Dovin” a snappy up tempo tune. Both sides made for an inauspicious debut for the new group. The next release by The Coasters for Atco on # 6073 came in the spring of 1956 with the song “One Kiss Led To Another”, a song of romantic ecstasy. The flip side showed the group’s way with a standard pop tune on a great interpretation of the song “Brazil” with all of its intricate chord changes and melody shifts. With this tune The Coasters showed some impressive musicianship and let it be known that this was not your usual street corner harmony group.
By 1957 The Coasters were a big draw on the road and fans were eager to see the showmanship match the musicianship of this top rock ‘an roll act on stages across the country. In 1957 they produced a huge two sided hit with “Young Blood” and “Searchin’ on # 6087 for Atco. At this time “Young” Jessie a well known Los Angeles R & B performer replaced Hughes in the recording studio with the group. Both sides made the national pop charts top ten sellers for a large part of the year ( “Searchin’” got to number three) and they were now making television appearances on top night time musical variety shows along with the teen oriented afternoon dance shows most importantly, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Now surprisingly enough, the red hot Coasters lost their momentum as the next three releases by the group were not successful. “Idol With The Golden Head” got some airplay, but very little in sales and was not helped by the flip side “My Baby Comes To Me” on Atco # 6098. This was followed by two records that were all but invisible – “Sweet Georgia Brown” / “What Is The Secret Of Your Success” on # 6104, and “Dance” / “Gee Golly” on # 6111.

The group’s manager Lester Sill felt that a big shakeup was necessary at this point in time. Billy Guy and Carl Gardner headed East to New York and were joined by two long time L.A. based group singers to fill out the new version of The Coasters. The new members of the revamped Coasters were Will “Dub” Jones who was formerly a member of The Jacks / Cadets, and Cornell Gunter a former member of The Flairs. This version of The Coasters began their recording career with Atco # 6116 – “Yakety Yak” and “Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart”. The results were almost immediate. “Yakety Yak” was a tale of teenaged life in America in the late fifties. Like many of the songs of Chuck Berry, the lyrics appealed to teenagers all over the country and hit a responsive chord with them regardless of race, economic status, and region of the country. “Yak” went right to the top of the pop music hit parade in the summer of 1958 and is one of the enduring sounds of the decade. The flip side which went unnoticed at the time, has become a favorite with many fans of the group because of the great arrangement, harmony, and vocal performance. “Zing” has become a staple of many aspiring groups over the years. “The Shadow Knows” harking back to the radio favorite of the forties did not do well ( the flip side was “Sorry But I’ll Have To Pass” on # 6126), but the group hit big again with their next Atco release.

“Charlie Brown” was another tale of teenage life of the time and became a monster hit. Once again the stuttering “Yakety Sax” of King Curtis was a big part of the record’s appeal. The flip side of “Charlie Brown” was a song that continued in this vein with “Three Cool Cats” on #6134. The ‘A’ side got to number two on the national pop charts and had a three month stay on the best seller lists. Continuing in 1959 “Along Came Jones” a spoof of Western movies was another pop hit for the group coupled with “That Is Rock And Roll” an interesting song about the appeal of the music. “Jones” was a top ten pop seller and continued the great hit making streak by the Coasters. The beat went on as a sensational two sided hit was next – “Poison Ivy” / “I’m A Hog For You” on Atco # 6146. “Ivy” was the featured side and was a number seven seller on the national pop charts and another bit of musical fun by the group. The more bluesy “Hog” was a top forty seller on its own. The Coasters were not done for 1959 just yet. “Run Red Run” on # 6153 was a nice tune and a nice seller for the group, as was the flip side “What About Us?”. 1959 was a marvelous year for The Coasters and Lieber-Stoller, composers of most of the hits by The Coasters.

Into the early sixties, The Coasters tried to weather the storm that was hitting the music at the time. The first golden age of rock ‘n roll was over and from the time of the payola scandals there was a lot of lousy music as corporate entities and musical schlockmeisters tried to force feed “safe” songs and performers to young America. Exhibit A was the new “boy next door persona” adopted by Col. Parker for his boy Elvis. The Coasters “Besame Mucho parts 1 and 2 on # 6163, “Wake Me, Shake Me” / “Stewball” on # 6168, and “Shopping For Clothes” / “Snake And The Bookworm” on # 6178 were all lost on release. In 1961 however, The Coasters had a bit of a return to the hit parade. First with “Wait A Minute” (from an earlier recording session) which got onto the pop charts and peaked at number thirty seven (flip side was “Thumbing A Ride” on # 6186) and a stronger outing with “Little Egypt” a top twenty five seller on # 6192 paired with “Keep-A Rollin”. The Coasters had notched the pop charts for the last time. After the release of “Little Egypt”, Cornell Gunter left the group to go out on his own and Lieber and Stoller ended their association with the group a year later. From that time on The Coasters were a mainstay on the “oldies” circuit where they perform to this day in various official and non official groupings.

There have been many different members of the Coasters from 1960 on as the group became a mainstay on the revival scene. Two of the more interesting and talented were Earl "Speedoo" Caroll one of the original members of The Cadillacs. Earl was a member of The Coasters for nearly twenty years ending in the late seventies, and Ronnie Bright an original member of The Valentines also spent some time as a Coaster. Through it all - the changes in musical tastes, the changes in the business, and changes in the group itself, Carl Gardner remains steady as a rock. Fifty years and counting as the prime face of The Coasters, Gardner performs today (alongside his son) as a link to the glorious past when the music really mattered.

There are a number of CDs available containing the work of this historic group. The best is Rhino's "50 Coasting Classics".

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