The Coasters

TrackSingle    
I Love Paris (The Robins)Spark 113
Searchin'Atco 45-6087
Young BloodAtco 45-6087
Yakety YakAtco 45-6116
The Shadow KnowsAtco 45-6126
Sorry But I'm Gonna Have To PassAtco 45-6126
Poison IvyAtco 45-6146
I'm A Hog For YouAtco 45-6146
Shoppin' For ClothesAtco 45-6178
Little EgyptAtco 45-6192

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The Coasters photo 1

The Coasters (l to r): Billy Guy, Will Jones, Carl Gardner, Cornell Gunter, Adolph Jacobs

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Murky sound, terrible picture but magic, absolute magic, from that first shuffle onto the stage

There were vocal groups and there were the Coasters. Not quite chalk and cheese but they were different. In comparison, even the magnificent Drifters fall in the vocal group category. Not a difference that’s easy to pin down though. What the Coasters definitely did have, was Leiber & Stoller. They also had lineage.

First there was a group called the Robins and, they were formed way back in 1945 i.e. pre-doo wop days. I say they were called the Robins. Actually they had loads of names, The A-Sharp Trio, The Four Bluebirds, The Blue Notes, The Robbins, The Nic Nacs, The Drifters (!!) and more.

 

THE ROBINS

At the start there were just three of them, Terrell Leonard (who used the name Ty Terrell), and the brothers Billy and Roy Richard, respectively tenor, tenor and baritone, though Roy sometimes took on a bass role. They were all students at Alameda School in Los Angeles. After failures getting bookings elsewhere, in 1947 they turned up at one of the Thursday night talent contests run by Johnny Otis at the Barrelhouse Club in Watts Avenue, in Central L.A.. They won the second prize and a booking at the club on weekends at $5 a night.

Ulysses “Bobby” Nunn was another singer who appeared at the club. He was a baritone/bass but more blues oriented than the A-Sharp Trio. In the tail end of the forties, bass singers were starting to assume some prominence with the usual example quoted being Jimmy Ricks of the Ravens. In order to compete, Otis hit upon the idea of putting together Nunn and the A-Sharp Trio. For their first release, My Baby Done Told Me, he gave the boys a new name, the Four Bluebirds, but it didn’t last (see Footnotes).

It was a good record but of more impact in terms of chart success for the boys was 1950’s Double Crossing Blues on which the credit read “JOHNNY OTIS QUINTETTE: Vocals By The Robins and Little Esther”. The record smashed its way into the national R&B Chart, holding down the number one spot for nine weeks. Part of its attraction was the semi risqué dialogue between Esther and Bobby Nunn (that’s if you understood the black slang of course). It was the first biggie for Otis, for Esther (or Esther Phillips as she was later known) and for the Robins.

The Robins got themselves a second R&B Chart hit with If It’s So Baby, released in January 1950. There’s a kind of shuffle beat going on in this, indeed the rhythm section could almost have come off one of those T-Bone Walker jumpers. It’s also an excellent example of Bobby Nunn playing Mr Cool in front of the brothers and Ty.

Over the period 1949 to 1951, there was a bewildering variety of records recorded and released by the Robins across a range of labels, some with Otis, some without – they did have a falling out over money in 1950 but that didn’t prevent records coming out, some of which were ‘in the can’ and some reflected Otis and the boys back together again. This is also where some of those aliases came in. In addition, there were solo records from Bobby Nunn plus duets with Little Esther. There was even one record wherein it was claimed that they were masquerading as the Drifters, though that’s never been verified.

Amid this plethora of plastic – or more likely shellac since output was still mainly on 78s – one single recorded in 1950, but released the following year, warrants some attention. That’s What The Good Book Says was hidden away on the reverse side of a track entitled Rockin’. What was significant about it was the song writer credits: Leiber, Stoller. Reminiscing about it, Jerry Leiber stated “It was a kind of f**ked-up version of a blues and a gospel number and really not much of either. It was a pretty bad song but the first record we ever got” (source: “The Coasters” by Bill Millar).

It wasn’t that bad. There were little storylines in there based on biblical characters, hardly revolutionary but an intelligent alternative to much of the stuff that appeared on R&B records in those days, and the majority of pop was no better. Leiber and Stoller had no influence on the production or arrangement of the record; they weren’t in the studio at the time so the sound was fairly predictable Robins.

Things were relatively quiet for the Robins from late ’51 to’52. Some of their members were on armed service and some might have been avoiding the law depending on who you believe. A new member, Grady Chapman, came on board. He was a tenor with the ability to handle very high notes without using falsetto.

In 1953, one of the then major labels, RCA Victor, sensing an opportunity to get into the R&B (and potentially, crossover) market, signed up the Robins on a twelve month contract from the start of the year. While none of the sides released by the Robins at RCA could be described as outstanding – with one possible exception – they did show that the group, particularly with a new voice on board, could handle a much wider range of material than might have seemed possible hitherto. Within the ten sides there was one song written by Leiber and Stoller. It was called Ten Days In Jail, and you probably won’t be surprised to hear that this was that one exception I mentioned. Although not confirmed by most sources this one does sound as if it was produced by the pair. Mike Stoller has stated, “He (Jack Lewis, A&R man for RCA), asked us to come in and kinda be, in effect, producers for The Robins” (source: “The Coasters” by Bill Millar). From the results I’m inclined to believe this statement. Indeed, I get the impression that this was Jerry and Mike trying out some of the techniques they would deploy on Coasters tracks – three part vocals, extreme doo woppy sounds, punch lines divided into phrases from different group members, crowd noises, chunky punctuation from the band, a much more down and dirty arrangement than previously (this was 1953 remember), plus some great boogie piano from Mike Stoller. OTT? Oh, yes, but rather remarkable. This was very nearly a selection.

 

LEIBER & STOLLER

Some backtracking on Leiber and Stoller is called for.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were quite simply the most significant and most influential people in the field of popular music during the period of, broadly, 1957 to 1962, apart from the artists themselves. While they worked with a wide range of performers including Elvis himself and the Drifters, it’s for their period with the Coasters that they’ll be most strongly remembered.

End of rave. Back to this particular plot line. Both gentlemen were born on the East Coast of America in 1933, Leiber from Baltimore and Stoller from Long Island, New York. Both came from Jewish families. Both moved to Los Angeles in their teens. Jerry Leiber who’d been brought up in a mixed colour neighbourhood, had a love for both blues and country music from those early days. He started writing songs from the age of sixteen – he was the principal lyric writer of the eventual duo – but started searching for someone to supply melody lines, otherwise he was largely restricted to twelve bar blues. Mike Stoller, a man with a love for boogie woogie piano, was the person he found. Their first songs were sold to Aladdin Records with some assistance from Lester Sill, who Leiber had met while he was working at Norty’s, a record store on Fairfax Avenue.

History offers competing versions of which was the first song sold by the boys. Most accounts have it as Real Ugly Woman performed by Jimmy Witherspoon. This is at variance with Jerry Leiber’s words on the Robins’ That’s What the Good Book Says. Real Ugly Woman was a slow blues with real or feigned audience reaction and near novelty lyrics that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in any rhythm and blues song from the period.

She ain’t built for power, she ain’t built for speed
Well that woman’s built for comfort and that’s what every good man needs

Both records came out in early 1951. The following year found the boys with two R&B Chart hits on their hands, Hard Times from Charles Brown, and K.C. Loving from Little Willie Littlefield. The latter with a title change to Kansas City become a major pop hit for Wilbert Harrison in 1959.

 

The second of the discs is now very much regarded as an R&B classic. Wiki tells us that there are more than three hundred versions of the song from a wide range of artists including Little Richard, the Beatles, James Brown and Muddy Waters.

One other early song from L & S demands mention, and that’s Hound Dog from Willy Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, which was recorded in Summer 1952 but didn’t see release until the following year (with R&B Chart recognition). There was dispute about the rights of the song with Johnny Otis – Big Mama Thornton was his discovery – but L & S won the battle. It’s reported that the boys were initially none too happy with the Presley version but that unhappiness disappeared fairly promptly with the appearance of the royalties and they went on to provide several hits for Mr Presley.

What the pair also started doing in that 1951/52 period was getting into the production aspects of studio work. With rhythm and blues, production wasn’t a noun that got mentioned much in the forties and early fifties. The label owner – remember that black music got recorded by small indies – and/or the band leader took on the responsibility for the musical aspects of putting a record together. Those labels that found success often appointed a musical director who would number production as one of his/her key responsibilities. Other label owners, like Don Robey of Duke/Peacock, preferred to be hands-on.

 

THE ROBINS and LEIBER AND STOLLER

In late 1953, Jerry and Mike decided to set up a record label. This they did, and Spark Records was born, with Lester Sill (another one of the co-owners) named as National Sales Manager, and the two boys themselves responsible for A&R. Meanwhile the Robins, after the expiry of their contract with RCA, went off and recorded some tracks for Modern/Crown. They also picked up a new member, Carl Gardner, a tenor who had recently been touring with Johnny Otis. In part, Gardner was a replacement for Grady Chapman who spent a period in prison.

Jerry and Mike signed the Robins and May 1954 saw the release of Spark 103, Riot In Cell Block #9. This was so good it could almost have been a Coasters’ record, indeed it does get in some Coasters’ collections. Ten Days In Jail might have been the model but everything was ramped up – sirens, gunfire, the lot. I described the rhythm on the earlier disc as “down and dirty”, well this was down and dirtier. An absolutely splendid sax (from Gil Bernal) provided counterpoint to the lead singer. I say “lead singer” because for this record L & S went outside and used someone they’d recorded in ’53, Richard Berry, then lead vocalist for the Flairs (see Footnotes). Whether Bobby Nunn didn’t feel happy with Jerry’s lyrics, or, whether he didn’t convey quite the psychopath mentality that the duo wanted, we’ll never know. There are differing versions. Certainly that mix of menace, cool and humour that emanated from Berry, was something rarely heard on record.

Within that relatively brief period at Spark (Spring ’54 to late Summer ’55) one could see the future Coasters writ large. Tracks like Smoky Joe’s Café (one of the earliest playlets), One Kiss and Framed (on which Bobby proved he could do that voice) could easily be mistaken for Coasters’ productions if one didn’t know better. Usually either Gardner or Nunn took the lead role but the practice of deploying several voices started to feature. Grady Chapman did his time and returned to provide a fabulous tremulous lead for Smoky Joe’s Café.

My other favourites from this period are two of the lesser known tracks. Both, in fact, were flips (though on both late period Robins and the Coasters, the flips often rivalled the A-sides for quality). I Love Paris is, I think, the first time Jerry and Mike took on an oldie and you can almost hear one saying to the other “we’ve got to do something really different here”. And they did. With a vengeance. Mike Stoller’s piano kicks off the whole thing in a kind of latin shuffle rhythm with Grady in that near falsetto voice, high on top of it all, but then it switches to a solid chunk of R&B with doo wop interjections, and it switches again, and again. Yes it was show-offy both for the Robins and their arrangers/producers but you listen to it and just go, “Wow”. The performance was absolutely immaculate, something one could say about all the Coasters’ records. I confess to a liking of all the Robins/Coasters oldies/standards. So much so that it’s difficult to single out favourites. But this was the first.

Just Like A Fool, the flip of Smoky Joe’s Café, was almost the polar opposite to I Love Paris. A slow soul blues of the type you might have heard from Little Willie John, with Carl Gardner performing in the lead role with total conviction. Straight was the first adjective that occurred to me. but that doesn’t convey the mix of emotion and constraint that makes this an understated beauty. Was this Jerry, Mike and the boys saying we can do this sort of thing as well as most other artists? Again, almost made the list.

The success of Smoky Joe’s Café in the L.A. area was noted by Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic, who was in the city for a Drifters session. He reported back to brother Ahmet and Jerry Wexler, which resulted in Atlantic making an offer to Jerry and Mike, ideally with, but possibly without, the Robins. The eventual agreement saw Jerry and Mike moving to Atlantic as producers, together with the entire Spark catalogue plus associated publishing firm, plus two artists (Frankie Marshall and Garland the Great), plus two members of the Robins, leaving Jerry and Mike the task of building a new group around the latter.

Smoky Joe’s Café was repackaged as an Atco release, Atco being a subsidiary of Atlantic. And instead of selling a likely 90,000 copies, it sold 250,000.

Bobby Nunn and Carl Gardner agreed to move to Atlantic/Atco. The others decided to stay in the Robins and to rebuild the group by adding new members. The reason usually given is that the ‘other Robins’ were unwilling to up sticks and move to New York, which was the Atlantic base. That’s probably an over simplification but it will suffice.

Bobby and Carl were given the task of recruiting new members for the new Atco group and they did it in two weeks. Billy Guy, replacement tenor and later lead on many Coasters’ records, lived opposite Carl in Los Angeles. Leon Hughes, replacement baritone, was someone Guy knew. Adolph Jacobs, guitarist, who was only eighteen at the time, was found by Bobby. Lester Sill became the manager of the new group and he was the one who came up with the name. Due to the move from the western to the eastern seaboard, the name he chose was:

 

THE COASTERS

Who made loads and loads of hit records and lived happily ever after. Well, not quite. They made a number of hit records but maybe not as many as you would have expected judged by the longevity of some of their numbers. But right from the start in 1956, through to the early sixties – Leiber and Stoller departed from Atlantic in 1963 – they made a sequence of records which consistently demonstrated a remarkably high level of entertainment and musical intelligence which was in excess of that achieved by any other artist in popular music at the time. The majority of their records can be seen as a logical extension of black music using the characteristics of both doo wop and jump blues cum rock and roll but attracting and maintaining interest, by bending those tropes into unexpected shapes. And that comment is applicable to both the melodic and the lyrical aspects of those records.

And they didn’t all stay forever of course. Just like most other groups there was movement. Below I’ve summarised the ins and outs up to 1967, which seems a convenient stopping point:

Bobby Nunn (bass) left in 1957, to be replaced by Will “Dub” Jones.

Leon Hughes (tenor) left in 1957 to be replaced by Cornell Gunter who left in 1961 to be replaced by Earl “Speedo” Carroll.

Adolph Jacobs left in 1959 to be replaced by Albert “Sonny” Forriest who left in 1961 to be replaced by Thomas “Curley” Palmer.

Carl Gardner and Billy Guy stayed till 2005 and 1973 respectively.

Young Jessie of the Debonaires/Flairs and solo work appeared in a harmony role on some of the group’s records in 1957. He didn’t appear on stage with the guys.

 

THE MUSIC

None of my words in the last subsection tell you anything about the music these guys produced. I didn’t even mention that word, COMEDY. But it might be easiest to start by stating what they didn’t do:

– L & S totally removed slow ballads from the group’s vocabulary, if I can use that word. This was completely unlike the bulk of other black vocal groups who relied on slowies. In the same time frame, L & S certainly wrote slow romantic numbers but these went to other artists e.g. Presley (Loving You, Don’t and more), The Drifters (There Goes My Baby and more), Ben E. King (Stand By Me and more).

– Nor did the guys utilise the ‘doo wop progression’ with any frequency (in fact I’m not sure I can find one example) though they did use it with other artists. Again this is a big differentiator against other doo wop or black vocal groups, some of which used little else e.g. Shep and the Limelites.

– Quite regardless of the group changes I’ve listed above, they didn’t stick with one lead singer unlike, say, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Two leads on particular records wasn’t unusual for them, and there were often ‘bit part players’ present.

– Unlike many black artists in the time frame – I’m thinking of James Brown, Chuck Willis, Hank Ballard and others – they didn’t gravitate towards soul music. At the same time, Jerry and Mike definitely did write songs that were pointers to soul, but for other artists: I Keep Forgetting for Chuck Jackson, Some Other Guy for Richie Barrett and the aforesaid Stand By Me, plus others. There was one notable exception, 1961’s (Ain’t That) Just Like Me with its Memphis Horns styled approach.

– They rarely produced what I’d call straight ahead rockers – again, L & S appeared to reserve these for others.

That’s enough yak – yeah I did resist the pun – we haven’t had any music for a long time. The boys very first single for Atco, Down In Mexico, released in February 1956, gave the listener something of an idea what was to come:

So, what did it have?

– Even though the pace was slow to medium it had a strong but subtle rhythm with the nuance coming from an intermingled element of latin (to reflect the title of course).

– There was a rasping sax player occupying one of the minor roles including the intro. On future records, this role would be filled by King Curtis who was sometimes given almost as much space as the vocalist(s).

– More prominently featured than the sax player was the guitarist, in this instance group member Adolph Jacobs. While this aspect has been rarely remarked upon re Coasters records, it was usually present, albeit well integrated. Later records would feature great names in the role, like Barney Kessell, Kenny Burrell and Mickey Baker (of Mickey & Sylvia). Even a young Phil Spector sat in on guitar on a session in 1960.

– Carl Gardner takes the lead with little lifts at the end of phrases indicating he’s pretty keen on all this stuff. The boys go ah and shuwap behind him, joining in on the climax lines.

– About one minute thirty in, the music shifts to a rapid, even more pronounced latin tempo, and Carl starts to overheat:

All of a sudden in walks this chick
Joe starts playing on a Latin kick
Around her waist she wore three fishnets
She started dancin’ with the castanets

– It drops back to the initial rhythm with that sax burst to take us into the fadeout.

It was the sort of thing that Jerry and Mike were attempting on Riot In Cell Block #9, but arguably executed with more precision. Maybe the south of the border thing was a connection to the previous record, the Robins/Coasters Smoky Joe. But the Joe was certainly different. Less scary. Might even have been a pimp. But that’s the world the Coasters occupied on many of their records. Not the world of the average white record buyer. But things change. And the Coasters aided and abetted by Jerry and Mike were agents of that change.

I didn’t want to cover the Coasters music via the “and then they released XXX” approach. Somehow it just seemed too grey. I wanted a bit of their garish technicolor (yes, their spelling) so I created some headings that seemed at least half way suitable and plonked my favourites under them. Like …

 

KIDDIE STUFF

… because the first one I really have a strong memory of, from radio play etc. at the time, is Yakety Yak. Hindsight tells us that it just had to be the one where Jerry & Mike locked themselves into the proverbial room beforehand and didn’t emerge until they’d found the song and the vocal and instrumental choreography that was required in order to pummel the teenage white buyer into blissful submission. But there was nothing forced about the end product. It romped along boisterously with the boys playing the role/s of the admonishing parent/s rather than the child/teen, with bass man Dub Jones intoning that final line. There’s a boogie bass line underpinning the whole thing but it’s more playful than on previous records like Searchin’. And that playful aspect is emphasised by sax man King Curtis, via both response to the chanted lines plus a splendid stuttering solo.

Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more
Yakety yak
Don’t talk back

Follow-ups Charlie Brown and Along Came Jones used the same components as Yakety Yak but weren’t slavish copies. Both were very good records in their own right, with the first being about the dumbest boy in the class with the marvellous goofy bass line, “Why is everybody always pickin’ on me”, and the second about a television western hero called, of all things, Jones. It had a hook line – “And then along came Jones” – but cleverly it was located at the start of the chorus, not the end. On all three of these records the sax playing of King Curtis was arguably as important as the Coasters. He had a clean but fruity tone (if that’s not an oxymoron), totally unlike the rasping sax growl on many earlier records. According to Bill Millar, Curtis was no improviser but was superb at picking up parts that Jerry or Mike sang to him (and note that in the wording in Bill’s book, Jerry was mentioned in this respect as well as Mike).

Late period Coasters songs started to make use of writers other than Jerry and Mike. (Ain’t That) Just Like Me (October 1961) was written by Earl Carroll and Billy Guy, though appropriated might be a better word. The verses were straight lifts from nursery rhymes, perhaps taking a lead from Jerry and Mike themselves (see below). Whilst initially the line “And everywhere that Mary went, that lamb was sure to go” had a direct connection to the chorus wherein the hero was cracking up over his girl and wanted her to come everywhere with him, subsequent rhymes had an increasingly tenuous relationship with the chorus. Did it really matter? No, because the whole thing drove along with mucho brio and, as I mention elsewhere, was the nearest the boys ever got to outright soul dance music. The exhortations at the end, “It’s alright” and “C’mon baby” could have slotted in to a fade on a Sam & Dave Stax outing

 

RUDE BOYS

At the other extreme from those songs targeted at the teeny boppers were the ones set clearly in the black community and having as subject matter, one particular three letter word. This was very largely how Jerry and Mike had started, emulating performers like Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, Roy Brown and others, whose songs very frequently zeroed in on that subject, usually with a wrapping of double entendre and/or black street slang (which could well make the subject matter incomprehensible to white ears). Think Hound Dog in its original incarnation from Big Mama Thornton. Jerry and Mike didn’t stop writing about sex just because they’d found a way to communicate with white record buyers with relatively harmless/innocent lyrics.

Little Egypt (released April 1961) was the tale of a stripper who had “a ruby on her tummy and a diamond big as Texas on her toe” plus “a picture of a cowboy tattooed on her spine, saying Phoenix, Arizona, nineteen forty nine”. If they had dropped off a little quality wise round about 1960 (and I’m not sure they did), this was a triumphal return to form, complete with a stunning intro from the m/c. The versatile Billy Guy was the goggle-eyed spectator at the show, and, rather rarely for a Leiber/Stoller song it had a kind of happy ending:

Cause we got seven kids and
All day long they crawl around the floor, wo wo,
Singing, “Yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Yeah yeah!”

Whether you’re prurient or not, what is undeniable about Little Egypt is that it had one of Mike’s best tunes, one that would lodge itself in the brain cells after one listen, causing subsequent bouts of humming.

Earl and Billy weren’t the only ones to ‘borrow’ from nursery rhymes. Jerry and Mike would happily pilfer from such a source if they felt that would benefit a song, Three Little Piggies was a natural source for I’m A Hog For You, in which Jerry included another of his obsessions, eating, as well as sex.

One little piggy ate a pizza (yeah)
One piggy ate potato chips (yeah)
But this little piggy’s
Coming over your house
He’s gonna nibble on your sweet lips

But there was more to this record than one sexually obsessed male, the beat was more forceful than most Coasters records and there was a positively evil guitar riff which sounded very like Steve Cropper of Booker T’s MG’s, only I’m very doubtful as to whether the young Mr Cropper had set foot in a studio at this time. And it’s probably that riff that made the song a natural for a host of groups: the Kinks in the sixties, Dr. Feelgood in the seventies, and more.

The sexual obsession theme was nothing new for Leiber and Stoller. Young Blood from the second session held for the Coasters in February 1957, had a similar individual minus the piggie trappings but egged on by three just as lecherous mates. Before the end he’s fractured, lame and stuttering, so there’s no happy ending on this one.

The ”red blooded boy who just can’t stop thinking about girls” was the hero/narrator on several other Coasters songs – Gee Golly, Three Cool Cats, and the one that line came from, Girls, Girls, Girls, are all cases.

 

UNUTTERABLY COOL

To kids growing up in the UK, all Coasters records were cool, but some were just unutterably so. Shoppin’ For Clothes just has to be the most out there. They hardly bother with a tune on this one; there’s just an unbelievably lazy slow to medium stop time beat with Billy Guy rapping along nicely as potential buyer and Dub Jones as the seriously deep voiced salesman – “That suit’s pure herringbone”. The rest of the boys do some ooh ooh oohs in the chorus and that’s about it. No happy ending though – “I’m sorry my man, your credit didn’t go through”.

What buyers didn’t know at the time was that this song was a partially modified lift from another record, Boogaloo (real name Kent Harris) and his Gallant Crew with Clothes Line (Wrap It Up). Leiber and Stoller slowed it down, changed the title and, worse, changed the writer’s name from Harris to Glick. A later release had the correct title and writer listed in the credits. Regardless of the shenanigans, the Coasters version was undoubtedly the better record. Here are the two versions:

 

Cut at the same session as one of their straightest performances, on Sorry But I’m Gonna Have To Pass, of which more later, The Shadow Knows was one of the nuttiest efforts ever. Maybe the other song was recorded first and they just let it all hang out on this one. The Shadow, who even knows when you wiggle your toes, was played by Billy “master of freaky voices” Guy. Reverb guitar, manic chuckles, a stonkingly heavy beat, superb sax work from King C, and humour with menace. I can’t think of any other group who could have come up with this one. It shouldn’t have been cool, but it was. Amazing stuff,

Three Cool Cats was cool in a more conventional sense and it was tucked away on the flip of Charlie Brown, possibly on the grounds of L & S attempting to illustrate an ability to appeal to totally different audiences, and succeeding in that aim. This was almost jazz. Listen to that sax break from the magnificent King Curtis again, and you could almost imagine yourself at the Flamingo all-nighter in the early sixties with a crowd of mods and their ladies shuffling away.

 

ODDITIES / RARITIES / OBSCURITIES

Sorry But I’m Gonna Have To Pass has to head this list. An early flip side but one that didn’t receive much notice when it was released. Its usage on a Volkswagen Passat telly commercial in 1994 gave the Coasters a very belated chart entry, and reminded some of us what a great song this was. Dub Jones spends the entire number resisting the advances of a flirty female, reminding himself of that lady waiting at home.

But if you’re thinking
What I think you’re thinking
Thanks but no thanks

But honey don’t bother
A husband and a father
Sorry but I’m gonna have to pass

This is one of those occasions where merely plopping lyrics on paper does minimal justice to the phrasing of the delivery, which is a considerable part of the charm of the performance. Backing is minimal, consisting of little more than an acoustic sounding guitar, and the song has the kind of latin lilt that had largely disappeared from Coasters records after Down In Mexico.

Two relatively early Coasters tracks were unusual in several respects. The tracks were What Is The Secret Of Your Success?, and Idol With A Golden Head. Their peculiarities were (1) their uniqueness in being the only Coasters tracks recorded in the Chess Studios in Chicago, (2) they weren’t released at the time in the UK (and I suspect not in other countries outside the US), and (3) both dealt with subject matter that wasn’t addressed in any other Coasters records.

What Is The Secret Of Your Success? addressed those self-improvement programs that were around in the US in the fifties and have never really gone away since. A delightful record wherein Bobby Nunn (yes, it was that long ago) in the role of the guy who had succeeded, supplied the answer, “Some cats got it and some cats ain’t”.

In Idol With A Golden Head, Carl buys himself said golden idol specifically to find out the whereabouts of his girl, Big Foot May. When the idol tells him that “she’s down at Catfish Creek, rocking and a’rolling, (to Mike’s piano of course), he asks what he can do about it, at which the idol informs he that he’d better “learn to do the boogie”. Science Fiction was new and fresh in the US in the fifties so this was probably young Jerry reflecting on his reading material.

 

OLDIES

The liking for oldies/standards which had already shown itself with the Robins, was demonstrated again with the Coasters, with such numbers popping up occasionally, maybe because the pair didn’t have enough self-penned material to hand or, more likely, because they just loved having the group doing them. They manage to impart a strong whiff of sensuality to the previously innocent Sweet Georgia Brown, indeed it almost emerges X rated from the makeover. In contrast – and there seemed to be contrasts everywhere with the Coasters – Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart is given a classic (but relatively conventional) doo wop treatment with the warm voiced Dub Jones easing us into the number, and Cornell Gunter soaring to the heavens on the second verse. Conventional maybe but superb.

 

1960 saw the release of an entire oldies/standards LP from the Coasters, entitled One By One, and surprising or not, each song was taken in a totally conventional manner. Full string orchestra, lead vocal only with no funny, or otherwise, interjections, and with that lead shared out between the boys (and I mean per song rather than within song).

The Coasters do lounge, but was there a point, beyond, “We can do this kind of music as well as many, and better than most” or, a riposte to “Those guys can’t sing ‘real’ songs”? Well yes, if your taste range took in this kind of music, the album was very enjoyable even if it gave only hints every now and then of the guys normal métier. And I should add that, reportedly, (Robert Christgau in “The Coasters With No Strings Attached”) it was Carl Gardner who persuaded Leiber and Stoller to let the boys do a standards album, and the whole thing was completed in two days to previously prepared backing tapes. Here’s a taster, Billy Guy and Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You.

What the album did prove, as if there was any doubt, was that all these guys could sing and each could have easily held their own in a supper club type of venue. In addition to that, all four were entirely comfortable with the format, suggesting a depth of musical knowledge previously unsuspected. The album wasn’t released in the UK at the time, so I’m coming to it with a fresh pair of ears.

 

… AND ONES THAT JUST WOULDN’T FIT IN THOSE CATEGORIES

I’ve saved the best till almost last. Well, how do you categorise Searchin’ and does anyone have any disputes about my ranking?

“Jerry Leiber was some lyricist, but the impact was sonic: four mixed-down, oddly harmonized, bass-repressed “Gonna find her”s over Mike Stoller’s alley piano leading to the first classic Billy Guy vocal. For me at 15 and even now, that vocal came from nowhere.” (source: Robert Christgau’s “Unnaturals: The Coasters With No Strings Attached”)

“The basic idea behind the song was traditional rhythm and blues – get a simple rhythm and restrict improvisation to melody and phrasing. Here, Leiber’s words served him well – the singer declared his determination to find his girl, if necessary by using the battery of detective techniques developed by Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, Bulldog Drummond. “And like that Northwest Mountie, you know I’ll bring her in some day.” This was one of the first songs to introduce specific figures from American culture into its lyrics.” (source: Charlie Gillett’s “The Sound Of The City”)

Neither the enthusiasm of Christgau nor the drier approach of Gillett really prepare you for the record.

Not quite my last selection though. I’ve saved the one with, arguably, the best melody line till the end. Poison Ivy starts out like one of their bluesier efforts with neat guitar intro, then drops nonchalantly into a minor chord chorus. And what a portrait – “Late at night while you’re sleeping Poison Ivy comes a creeping all round”. If Jerry actually knew this lady, she certainly left a deep impression. There’s little in the way of goofy voices – they’re just not needed.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Over the years, Leiber and Stoller have picked up some criticism on the grounds that there was a semi racist thing going on in many of their Coasters’ songs whereby they poked fun at the black and his (usually rather than her) predisposition for idle ways. It’s hard to deny there is an element of truth in this. In his “The Sound Of The City”, Charlie Gillett makes reference to the deep “fool” voice, as used in many of the songs. He goes on to say:

“While the device seemed to confirm every stereotype of the black man as indolent and stupid, it was consistent with the role taken by many black comedians who performed for black audiences, and the Coasters were at least as popular in the rhythm and blues market as in the pop market.”

Bill Millar devotes pages to the topic, identifying examples in many of the group’s songs, even including ones like Charlie Brown which L & S have said was as applicable to a white child as a black one. To be fair to Bill though, he does also quote many examples of the same type of stereotyping from black R&B writers of the period. Indeed he sees Jerry and Mike as having very largely succeeded in their objective of writing songs that can be truly considered as black R&B. He devotes several paragraphs to Johnny Otis, who is critical of Jerry and Mike for this reason, but I think one should remember that there was rancour between the threesome over who wrote what of the song Hound Dog, and it quite possible that the Otis view could have continued to be clouded by such memories.

There’s more on this topic in Robert Christgau’s excellent blog, “Unnaturals: The Coasters With No Strings Attached”.

On a much lighter note:

– The “boogiddy, boogiddy, boogiddy, boogiddy” on Run Red Run.

– The latin Besame Mucho – was this one originally planned for the Drifters?

– I managed not to mention that the guitar solo on I’m A Hog For You was played on one note only and I’d bet a pound to a penny that the person who had the idea to do this was either Jerry or Mike.

– What are those falsetto “Whoo’s” doing on Keep On Rolling? Did something just think the song needed livening up?

– In Wake Me, Shake Me, the staggeringly insouciant manner in which author Billy Guy rips off Swing Low Sweet Chariot but with garbage trucks instead of a band of angels coming after him.

– Fabulous sax work on all the lads’ efforts. Although King Curtis was the most frequent contributor, there were others used including the great Plas Johnson. And perish any ‘Benny Hill sax’ thoughts, this was all stunning stuff.

– There’s a strong blues raunch feel on several tracks like Searchin’, which is enhanced by usage of heavy seventh chords – it was often these tracks that appealed to the Brit groups who produced those cover versions.

– The demented echo effect of the four “Look-a there’s” on Young Blood.

– I’ve concentrated on the main period at Atlantic with Leiber & Stoller under contract to the label. They did reunite on a couple of later occasions, one of which produced a Jerry & Mike penned Down Home Girl which readers might be familiar with from the Stones version.

– Another intriguing one from those late sessions, D.W. Washburn, which Jerry & Mike had attempted to push, and failed, at their then label, Columbia/Date. In a speeded-up version it was a minor hit for the Monkees.

– Those phrases that enter your brain uninvited, and they’re not always the hook lines “I smell smoke in the auditorium”, “What a gas”, “You’re gonna need an ocean, of calamine lotion”,

Did you ever hear a tenor sax
Swingin’ like a rusty axe?
Well, baby, that is rock and roll
.

 

QUOTES

“… the Chicago singing groups like the Spaniels and the Dells really knocked me out but I’d say the Coasters were my inspiration” Curtis Mayfield from Bill Millar’s “The Coasters”

“The Coasters were one of the few artists in rock history to successfully straddle the line between music and comedy” AND “… one of the most consistently entertaining doo wop/vocal groups of all time” AllMusic biography

“Billy Guy was a surrogate for Jerry’s interpretations” Jerry Wexler from Robert Christgau’s “Unnaturals: The Coasters With No Strings Attached”

“… most of the Coasters’ records improve with age. It’s probably the finest tribute one can pay” Bill Millar in “The Coasters”

 

FOOTNOTES

1. The big conundrum was selections. Should I limit my ten to Coasters only? As you’ll have seen I compromised and included I Love Paris from the Robins, but I was hard on myself and didn’t include any oldies from the Coasters.

2. On starting this piece I did struggle a bit with the ‘correct’ usage of singular or plural in relation to a group name. Eventually I largely settled on what sounded right.

3. Without Bill Millar’s book “The Coasters” this piece might not have come about. I bought it somewhere around its original publication date (1975) and reread it from cover to cover whilst putting this document together. Not only is this one of the best books ever on an artist (or perhaps I should call them artists, given my comment above) it’s one of the best books on pop music in general. Shamefully there’s no Wiki feature on Bill, something that should be rectified.

4, I found the Marv Goldberg R&B Notebook on the Robins (co-authored with Todd Baptista) of great assistance.

5, Johnny Otis, “the white negro”, was a force of nature in the late forties and early fifties Los Angeles. Band leader, song writer, producer, A&R man, talent scout, disc jockey and much, much more, he seemed to be involved in everything under the broad heading of rhythm and blues, and he didn’t limit himself to downtown L.A.. For something more in depth, have a look at the Toppermost on the man from Cal Taylor and myself.

6. Otis’ selection of the name the Four Bluebirds for the Robins was in line with the fashion for black vocal groups to have ‘bird’ names emulating the Orioles and the Ravens. It only lasted for one release. The boys saw bluebirds as being very dark blue in colour, close to black, and black wasn’t a connotation they wanted.

7. It’s usually assumed that Jerry Leiber wrote all the lyrics and Mike Stoller all the music. While that’s not a bad generalisation, in fact both helped each other at times. Here’s Mike on Yakety Yak, “… I remember writing that with Jerry and Jerry shouted out the first line and I shouted the second line right back at him. I started playing piano and we wrote the song – the rest of the lyrics are Jerry’s – from there, very rapidly”. (source: Bill Millar’s “The Coasters”)

8. The late Lester Sill was one of those shadowy figures in popular music who, like Johnny Otis but out of the spotlight, seemed to get everywhere. He’s noted as one half – the other was Lee Hazlewood – of the management team behind Duane Eddy but was also the “Les” in Philles, with Phil Spector. He either headed up, worked for, or owned, a number of record and music companies. These extended to Jobete Music, the publishing arm of Berry Gordy’s Motown.

9. Aladdin Records was an L.A. based independent record label founded, in 1945, by the brothers Eddie and Leo Mesner. Its range covered jazz, R&B and early rock.

10. Jimmy Witherspoon was a blues singer of the type often labelled “blues shouter” who found a measure of fame in the forties with songs like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and “No Rollin’ Blues”. He tends to be associated more with the jazz blues era.

11. Charles Brown was an L.A. based piano blues artist who originally came to people’s attention as a member of Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers but subsequently went solo. Songs associated with him include Driftin’ Blues and Merry Christmas Baby. His gentle style was popular in L.A. night clubs of the late fortes and early fifties but, unfortunately for Charles, has rather lost its lustre as the years have progressed.

12. Just like Charles Brown and a few more, Little Willie Littlefield had gravitated from Texas to L.A. Hardly remembered at all these days other than for K.C. Lovin’ (Kansas City).

13. Wilbert Harrison, originally from Charlotte, North Carolina, had the smash hit with Kansas City in 1959. He’s possibly better known for Let’s Work Together, or, Let’s Stick Together, (which was effectively the same song). It was covered, decades later by Bryan Ferry.

14. It might well be apparent from the main text that Jerry Leiber seemed to have a thing about prison or prison related songs. The climax to that series might have been Jailhouse Rock for you know who.

15. In February 1953, a record called Sacroiliac Swing c/w The World Is Changing was issued on the Crown label, credited to The Drifters. More recent reports tell us that the group was actually the Robins though that’s never been fully confirmed.

16. Richard Berry was born in Louisiana but moved to Los Angeles with his family as a baby. He worked with a number of vocal groups before joining the Flairs in 1953. The group’s She Wants To Rock from the same year was an early production from Leiber and Stoller. Berry was on lead vocal and other members of the group at the time included Young Jessie and Cornell Gunter. Jessie was the composer of the song which made heavy usage of the euphemism ‘rock’.

At the end of ’54, Berry left the Flairs and formed his own group, the Pharoahs, though he continued work as a songwriter, and with other groups. In 1957, a new song that Richard had written entitled Louie Louie, was put on the flipside of a version of You Are My Sunshine from Richard and the Pharoahs. That was the start of the song’s very gradual climb to fame; the version from the Kingsmen was an international hit in 1963.

17. Chappell Music, publishers of I Love Paris, forced Spark to remove the Robins’ record of the song from the market alleging that the new version ridiculed the Cole Porter original.

18. The 2007 Quentin Tarantino film Death Proof used the Coasters’ Down In Mexico in its soundtrack.

19. Young Jessie shouldn’t be confused with the similarly named Jesse Belvin though both are unlikely to be heard of by most European readers. Like two of the earlier names in these footnotes, both were born in Texas and moved with their families to Los Angeles. Jessie’s full name is Obediah Donnell Jessie. He was a founder member of the Flairs and was briefly in the Coasters. He also recorded several interesting solo records, some under the aegis of Leiber & Stoller, including the splendidly titled Shuffle In The Gravel.

20. The doo wop progression is a chord sequence used heavily, but not only, in pop songs of the mid/late fifties and early sixties. Some doo wop groups used it almost to the exclusion of anything else. In the key of C, the chords are C Am F G. Think Teenager In Love, or Blue Moon.

21. Along Came Jones was based on the 1945 film of that name in which Gary Cooper takes the mickey out of his slow talking persona.

22. Kent Harris, another highly obscure name, seems to have knocked around the recording industry for years sometimes under aliases including Ducky Drake, and Boogaloo and his Gallant Crew. His main claim to fame is the single, Crest 45-1030, on which the A-side was Cops And Robbers (which got covered by Bo Diddley), and the flip, Clothes Line (Wrap It Up) which is discussed in the main text. Kent’s paths and those of various ex-Coasters crossed on several occasions in later years (see the long write-up in Wiki).

23. The Beatles performed 15 songs at their audition for Decca on January 1st 1962. Song #10 was the Coasters’ Three Cool Cats and Song #15 was Searchin’. Both songs were included in The Beatles Anthology 1.

24. Cal Taylor, who very kindly lent a hand with the proofing, spotted the fact that I’d not given a footnote to King Curtis. I can now inform you that Curtis Montgomery (birth name) was born in Fort Worth, Texas and went to school with Ornette Coleman. At which stage I break off to wonder how many blues and jazz performers didn’t come from Texas. He worked for a while with the Lionel Hampton Band and then, in 1952, moved to New York where he became an in demand session musician, working particularly but not only for the Atlantic label. He also started making solo records, of which, Soul Twist is the most well known. He was murdered in 1971 in a fracas outside his Manhattan apartment.

 

The Coasters photo 2

 

Carl Edward Gardner (1928-2011)

Billy Guy (1936–2002)

Bobby Nunn (1925–1986)

Adolph Jacobs (1939–2014)

Dub Jones (1928–2000)

Cornell Gunter (1936–1990)

Sonny Forriest (1934–1999)

Earl “Speedo” Carroll (1937–2012)

 

Those Hoodlum Friends: The Coasters website

The Coasters Discography

The Coasters: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

The Coasters – The Complete Singles As & Bs (1954-62)

Bill Millar, author of “The Coasters” (W.H. Allen 1975)

“Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography” (Omnibus Press, 2010)

The Coasters biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Richie Barrett, Bo Diddley, Dr. Feelgood, Little Willie John, The Kinks, Little Richard, Mickey & Sylvia, Johnny Otis, Elvis Presley, Shep and the Limelites, T-Bone Walker

TopperPost #638

3 Comments

  1. Cal Taylor
    Jul 4, 2017

    Although I declare a tangential interest, in that I proof-read this piece prior to it being offered for publication and suggested a few small additional points, I do not think that should preclude me from submitting a comment on this very fine piece. Dave, as usual, has provided us with a very well written, well researched, brilliant article – really all you need to know about The Coasters.
    From the late 1950’s/early 1960’s my old schoolmates’ musical tastes have diversified a lot. However, when we get together and reminisce, one of the very few artists we all agree we still love are…..The Coasters.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jul 5, 2017

    Dave, thanks for this superbly written and brilliantly comprehensive piece. Thought this comment from Jerry Leiber’s son, Peter (which first appeared on Michael Gray’s bobdylanencyclopedia blog) about L & S’s relationship to Tin-Pan Alley might interest you: “Leiber & Stoller were R&B cats who wrote blues-soaked material to suit their own tastes. Their interest in “the world of Peggy Lee” developed years after their association with Elvis had ended. Prior to that, Tin Pan Alley influenced them primarily in terms of craftsmanship, which they applied to the style and structure of the R&B they loved.”

    • Dave Stephens
      Jul 5, 2017

      Cal and Andrew, thanks for those kind words. You hear about things called labours of love, well this was definitely one of them. I like that comment about craftsmen and craftmanship. That’s what L & S were and the Coasters could well be termed craftsmen in their execution.

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