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Group Members: Leon Hughes And The Coasters
All Music Guide:
The Coasters were one of the few artists in rock history to successfully straddle the line between music and comedy. Their undeniably funny lyrics and on-stage antics might have suggested a simple troupe of clowns, but Coasters records were no mere novelties -- their material, supplied by the legendary team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was too witty, their arrangements too well-crafted, and the group itself too musically proficient. That engaging and infectious combination made them one of the most popular early R&B/rock & roll acts, as well as one of the most consistently entertaining doo wop/vocal groups of all time.
The Coasters grew out of a successful Los Angeles doo wop group called the Robins, which had been recording since 1949 and working with Leiber & Stoller since 1953. Atlantic Records acquired the Robins in 1955, when the Leiber & Stoller composition "Smokey Joe's Cafe" was becoming too big a hit for their small Spark label to handle; its success scored the duo an independent contract with Atlantic as producers and composers. Amid uncertainties over their new major-label arrangement, the Robins split up that fall; lead tenor Carl Gardner (a more recent addition) and bass Bobby Nunn formed a new group, the Coasters (named for their West Coast base), which maintained the Leiber & Stoller association -- an extremely wise move. The initial Coasters lineup was completed by baritone Billy Guy (a gifted comic vocalist) and second tenor Leon Hughes, with guitarist Adolph Jacobs figuring prominently on their recordings through 1959. Their first single, "Down in Mexico," became a Top Ten R&B hit in 1956, epitomizing the sort of humorous story-song Leiber & Stoller were perfecting. The Coasters hit again in 1957 with the double-sided smash "Young Blood"/"Searchin'," both sides of which reached the pop Top Ten. The follow-ups weren't as successful, and it was decided that both the group and Leiber & Stoller would move their operations to New York, where Atlantic was based. As a result, Nunn and Hughes left the group in late 1957, to be replaced respectively by bass Will "Dub" Jones (ex-Cadets, of "Stranded in the Jungle" fame) and second tenor Obie Jessie (for a very short period), then Cornell Gunter (ex-Flairs).
The Coasters' first recording in New York was 1958's "Yakety Yak," which featured King Curtis on tenor sax. Its witty, slice-of-life lyrics about a teenager being hassled by his parents struck a resounding chord, and "Yakety Yak" became the Coasters' first number-one pop hit that summer, topping the R&B charts as well. "Charlie Brown," which cast Jones in the title role of class clown (and immortalized him with the catch-phrase, "why's everybody always pickin' on me?"), hit number two on both the pop and R&B charts in 1959, firmly establishing the Coasters' widespread crossover appeal. More hits followed: the Western-themed "Along Came Jones," "Poison Ivy," "Shoppin' for Clothes," and the group's final Top 30 hit, 1961's burlesque-dancer tribute "Little Egypt."
Following "Little Egypt," Gunter departed, to be replaced by Earl "Speedo" Carroll (of the Cadillacs). Other personnel shifts ensued over the next few years, especially as the hits dried up; even more discouragingly, Leiber & Stoller left Atlantic in 1963. The Coasters parted ways with Atlantic in early 1966, signing with Columbia's Date subsidiary and reuniting with Leiber & Stoller for a time. Although they charted several times, no more hits were forthcoming, given the radically different musical climate; their last chart single was a 1971 cover of "Love Potion No. 9" (by which time Gardner was the only remaining original member), and their last new release came with a 1976 version of "If I Had a Hammer." Since then, numerous different Coasters lineups have toured the oldies circuit; Gardner's holds the legal claim to legitimacy, but Gunter, Guy, Jones, Nunn, and Hughes all led differing lineups at one point or another. Nunn died of a heart attack in 1986, one year before the Coasters became the first vocal group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Gunter was murdered in Las Vegas in 1990, and Jones passed away in early 2000.
The Coasters are an American rhythm and blues/rock and roll vocal group that had a string of hits in the late 1950s. Beginning with "Searchin'" and "Young Blood," their most memorable songs were written by the songwriting and producing team of Leiber and Stoller. Although the Coasters originated outside of mainstream doo wop, their records were so frequently imitated that they became an important part of the doo wop legacy through the 1960s.
The Coasters are a doo-wop group that started in October 1955. The original members of the Coasters were Carl Gardner, Billy Guy, Bobby Nunn, Leon Hughes (who was replaced by Young Jessie on a couple of their early Los Angeles recordings), and guitarist Adolph Jacobs. Jacobs left the group in 1959. The Coasters' were formed out of the group The Robins, a Los Angeles based rhythm and blues group, which included Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn.
The songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had started Spark Records, and in 1955 produced "Smokey Joe's Cafe" for the Robins (their 5th single with Leiber-Stoller). The record was popular enough that Atlantic Records offered Leiber and Stoller an independent production contract to produce the Robins for the Atlantic label. Only two of the Robins—Gardner and Nunn—were willing to make the move to Atlantic, recording their first songs in the same studio as the Robins had done (Master Recorders). In late 1957 the group moved to New York and replaced Nunn and Hughes with Cornell Gunter and Will "Dub" Jones. The new quartet was from then on stationed in New York (although all had Los Angeles roots).
The Coasters' association with Leiber and Stoller was an immediate success. Together they created a string of good-humored "storytelling" hits that are some of the most entertaining from the original era of rock and roll. Their first single, "Down in Mexico," was an R&B hit in 1956 and appears (in a re-recording from 1970—still with Gardner singing the lead) on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. The following year, The Coasters crossed over to the national charts in a big way with the double-sided "Young Blood"/"Searchin'." "Searchin'" was the group's first U.S. Top 10 hit, and topped the R&B charts for 13 weeks, becoming the biggest R&B single of 1957 (all these were recorded in Los Angeles).
"Yakety Yak" (recorded in New York), featuring King Curtis on tenor saxophone, included the famous lineup of Gardner, Guy, Jones, and Gunter, became the act's only national #1 single, and also topped the R&B chart. The next single, "Charlie Brown," reached #2 on both charts. This was followed by "Along Came Jones," "Poison Ivy" (#1 for a month on the R&B chart), and "Little Egypt (Ying-Yang)."
Changing popular tastes and a couple of line-up changes contributed to a lack of hits in the 1960s. During this time, Billy Guy was also working on solo projects, so New York singer Vernon Harrell was brought in to replace Guy for stage performances. Later members included Earl "Speedo" Carroll (lead of The Cadillacs), Ronnie Bright (the bass voice on Johnny Cymbal's "Mr. Bass Man"), Jimmy Norman, and guitarist Thomas "Curly" Palmer. The Coasters signed with Columbia Records's Date label in 1966, reuniting with Leiber and Stoller (who had parted ways with Atlantic Records in 1963), but were never able to regain their former fame. In 1971, The Coasters had a minor chart entry with "Love Potion No. 9," a song that Leiber and Stoller had written for the Coasters but instead gave to The Clovers in 1959. In Britain, a 1994 Volkswagen TV advertisement used the group's "Sorry But I'm Gonna Have To Pass" track, which led to a minor chart placement in that country.
In 1987, the Coasters became the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, crediting the members of the 1958-era configuration. The Coasters also joined the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999.
Several groups used the name in the 1970s, touring throughout the country, though Carl Gardner, one of the original Coasters, held the legal rights to it. Gardner continued to tour with the Coasters and made many attempts to stop bogus groups with no connection to the original group using the name. In late 2005, Carl's son Carl Gardner, Jr. took over as lead with the group when his father retired. The Coasters' lineup then consisted of Carl Gardner, Jr., J.W. Lance, Primo Candelara and Eddie Whitfield. Carl, Jr. has since split with this group and has started his own group with Curly Palmer.
As of 2012, Leon Hughes and Adolph Jacobs are the only surviving members of the original Coasters. Some of the former members suffered tragic ends. Saxophonist and "fifth Coaster" King Curtis was stabbed to death by two junkies outside his apartment building in 1971. Cornelius Gunter was shot to death while sitting in a Las Vegas parking garage in 1990. Nate Wilson, a member of one of Gunter's offshoot Coasters groups, was shot and his body dismembered in 1980. Former manager Patrick Cavanaugh was convicted of the murder after Wilson threatened to notify authorities of Cavanaugh's intent to buy furniture with stolen checks. While Cavanaugh was convicted of the murder and given the death sentence in 1984, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He died in 2006, in Nevada's Ely State Prison. Cavanaugh was 60.
The Coasters continue to appear regularly on "oldies" shows and PBS specials as old favorites and are available for bookings.
The Hits list below is from Joel Whitburn's Top R&B Singles and from the Pop positions published in Bill Millar's book "The Coasters" (1975).
In late June, 2007 Carl Gardner's autobiography "Carl Gardner: Yakety Yak I Fought Back - My Life with The Coasters" was published at AuthorHouse. On August 28, 2007 the Coasters' Leiber-Stoller produced recordings for Date/King 1966-1972 was released on a Varèse Vintage (Varèse Sarabande) CD, titled "Down Home" (302 066 844 2) - and on December 12, 2007 the complete Atco recordings 1954-1966 were released on a Rhino Handmade 4CD-set, titled "There's A Riot Goin' On: The Coasters on Atco" (Rhino RHM2 7740).
The Coasters' repertoire had a significant impact on '60s and '70s rock artists. For example, Leon Russell performed "Young Blood" at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, imitating the group's arrangement of the song with four different solo voices, and Bad Company's version of the song reached #20 on 22–29 May 1976 on the Hot 100; Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen recorded The Robins' "Riot in Cell Block #9," while The Beach Boys recorded a 1971 version with revised lyrics by that group's vocalist Mike Love, titled "Student Demonstration Time." The novelty singer Ray Stevens reached #27 on the U.S. pop singles chart with a 1969 remake of "Along Came Jones." Elvis Presley included "Little Egypt (Ying-Yang)" in the soundtrack for his 1964 film Roustabout. The first two British hits of The Hollies were "(Ain't That) Just Like Me" and "Searchin'." The Monkees reached #10 on the Cashbox singles chart with "D. W. Washburn." (The Coasters recorded it first, but when Date declined to release it, Leiber and Stoller sent it as a demo to the Monkees. After the Monkees' record charted, the Coasters' original was issued.) Several Coasters songs were part of The Beatles' repertoire before the British rock group began its recording career; George Harrison is among the singers on the above-mentioned Leon Russell live recording. The Grateful Dead similarly performed several Coasters songs in their early days. This was influenced by a weekend in 1965 in which the group (while still called The Warlocks) served as pickup band for the Coasters at a lounge in Belmont, CA. When the Beach Boys and the Grateful Dead united on stage to perform a brief set at New York City's Filmore East, they performed "Searchin'" and "Riot in Cell Block No. 9." Numerous groups have recorded "Poison Ivy."
The Coasters' hits also comprised a major portion of the song score for the 1994 musical revue Smokey Joe's Cafe, a retrospective of Leiber & Stoller songs that received one Grammy Award and seven Tony Award nominations following its 1995 Broadway debut. Their song "Baby, That Is Rock and Roll" has served as the main title for a biography/songbook of Leiber & Stoller songs and a Bravo television documentary on the songwriters.
In addition, Coasters songs and the Coasters themselves have been referred to by later popular musicians. Frank Zappa referenced the group in the lyrics of the song "Status Back Baby" on his second album, Absolutely Free. Sly Stone titled a No. 1 hit 1971 album by his group Sly & the Family Stone after the tag line from "Riot in Cell Block No. 9": There's a Riot Goin' On. The folksinger David Bromberg quoted from "Little Egypt (Ying-Yang)" in his 1972 song "Sharon". Paolo Nutini regularly covers "Down in Mexico" during live performances.