The Coasters were part of that era that prefigured the rock revolution of the '60s. Rock 'n' roll was still in its infancy, and harmonies were more potent than a full instrumental arsenal. So when Carl Gardner, lead vocalist of the Coasters -- and more recently, a resident of Port St. Lucie -- died this past weekend of congestive heart failure and vascular dementia at age 83, it offered another indication that the golden age of the '50s is fast fading into memory.
Gardner, who cofounded the group in 1955, struggled mightily to champion the Coasters' legacy -- one that included such enduring standards as "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Young Blood," and "Searchin'" -- but once their presence had dimmed, he was consistently thwarted by the multitude of pretenders who claimed that name and toured relentlessly to capitalize on their fame. He was also engulfed in legal squabbles over monies he thought he had been owed. When the Coasters were admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 -- they were the first group to earn that distinction -- he was quoted as saying, "I thought it was kind of nice. But all of a sudden, I said to myself, 'I didn't get paid, so what the hell do I care?'"
That was a sad summation of a career that had been one of the more successful ventures of the time. An outgrowth of a group called the Robins, the Coasters became the performing vehicle for famed songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who previously produced the Robins for Atlantic Records. When Gardner and Bobby Nunn left that outfit to reinvent themselves as the Coasters, they were given the immediate benefit of Leiber and Stoller's burgeoning arsenal of instantly infectious hits. Gardner and Nunn often shared the lead vocals, and their first attempt, "Down in Mexico," made the R&B charts in 1956 and was later resurrected for the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino's film Death Proof.
The next year, the Coasters scored major crossover success via the double-sided single "Young Blood"/"Searchin'." The latter song became the group's first U.S. Top 10 hit and topped the R&B charts for 13 straight weeks, resulting in the biggest R&B single of 1957. Although "Yakety Yak" was destined to become the group's only national number-one single, the Coasters' run of chart hits would continue with "Charlie Brown," "Along Came Jones," "Poison Ivy," "Love Potion No. 9," and "Little Egypt."
With the dawn of the '60s and the advent of the so-called British Invasion, the Coasters' chart reign quickly spiraled downward, but in the years since, their legacy has been resurrected somewhat, thanks not only to the group's steady presence on the oldies circuit but also through cover versions proffered by a host of '60s rockers who were only too happy to express their admiration for the band and its songs. Leon Russell retraced "Young Blood" at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, while the Beach Boys took "Riot in Cell Block No. 9," a minor hit for the Robins, and redubbed it "Student Demonstration Time" for their album Surf's Up.
The Beatles covered several Coasters songs as part of their early repertoire, and Elvis Presley, the Hollies, the Searchers, the Monkees, and the Grateful Dead are only a few of the acts that included Coasters songs both on their albums and in their performances. In addition, several Coasters songs made their way into the score for Smokey Joe's Cafe, a Tony-nominated Broadway revue based around the songs of Leiber and Stoller.
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Ultimately, Gardner is due much of the credit for that lingering legacy, given the fact that it was his rich tenor that ensured these doo-wop classics would achieve such immediate accessibility. Gardner's son Carl Jr. carries on that role, as he has since 2005, when the elder Gardner semiretired, but regardless, it's impossible to hear any Coasters classic and not think of Gardner, the man with the golden voice and, by all accounts, the spirit to match.