The Preeminence of The Coasters

When I was a very young, I remember a friend of my Dad’s named Ed once peppered me with questions about myself.  Ed had a young family himself and was easy around kids. He asked what my favorite song was.

“’Charlie Brown‘,” I said.

“Oh yes,” Ed said, and he sang a line of it:  “ ‘Why is everybody always picking on me?’ What a great song,” Ed said with a chortle.

I was simply amazed that a grownup had the slightest clue about the Coasters.

Back then I knew of two kinds of music. There was the music in my WWII-generation parents’ LPs collection. It was made up of popular music, jazzy and showtuney. Then there was the fresh sound of rock and roll on the radios at the shops and gas stations and especially blaring from the tinny transistor radios the teenagers played when sitting out on the steps of our Brooklyn neighborhood.

A few weeks ago I bought a newly released CD The Definitive Coasters (A Sides & B Sides). It had been a long long time since I gave the group a listen. From the opening siren wail on “Riot in Cell Block 9,” excitement reigns in every track. Every tune has the utmost production and performance values.

mi0003498290The coolness of  “Searchin’” or the velvety rap in “Shoppin’ for Clothes” (a remake of “Wrap It Up” by Boogaloo and His Gallant Crew) has improved with the patina of age.    What hasn’t time-travelled as well are the novelty tunes—”Charlie Brown”, “Along Came Jones”, “Little Egypt”—that might cause a modern listener to wonder why they were once thought to be so funny.

Where did these guys come from? The CD booklet tells their story in myriad detail.

Back in 1950 the LA vocal sextet the Robins caught the eye and ear of music manager Lester Sill. Sill—who had just put together the magnificent songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller—blended all this talent  and the hits, as they say, kept on coming, beginning with  “Riot in Cell Block 9.” (Anyone recall the Beach Boys remake, “Student Demonstration Time”?)

The Robins were disbanded and reformed in New York as the Coasters, with vocalists Bobby Nunn, Carl Gardner, Billy Guy, and Leon Hughs.  The “fifth” Coaster, as he was known, was King Curtis, whose piercing saxophone solos brought a hipster’s intensity to their sound.

The Coasters’ glory years faded for good in mid-JFK administration, corresponding to Leiber and Stoller ending their association with the vocal group. In retrospect, it was good timing for Mike and Jerry to bow out.  Soon the Beatles would emerge and take things to another level.  But up until then, Leiber-Stoller were hands down the best songwriting team around. Plus they were innovative arrangers and producers with a dozen of rock-n-roll hits for the Coasters, not to mention their work with other performers.

Before Beatles, the Coasters were simply the preeminent rock-n-roll group. Youtube pickings are slim of their live performances from their golden age, but digging in I found the original lineup doing a smooth rolling  “Searchin'” on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show.

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