Carl Gardner: Singer and founder-member of the Coasters, ‘the Clown Princes of Rock ’n’ Roll’

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The Independent Online

Carl Gardner was the last surviving member of the hit-making line-up of the Coasters which had success with "Searchin'", "Yakety Yak", "Poison Ivy" and many other titles in the late 1950s. The Coasters were dubbed the Clown Princes of Rock'n'Roll and the wit of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's songwriting, and the humour of their performances, made their work unique. Their records have not dated as no one made records like theirs either before or since. The Coasters made great records, and gave you a laugh as well.

Carl Edward Gardner was born in Tyler, Texas in April 1928. His father was a hotel porter, who also sold bootleg liquor. His mother Rebecca was a Comanche Indian and Gardner believed his musical talent came from her. He was singing on local radio while he was still a child and he wanted to be in a vocal group like the Ink Spots or the Mills Brothers. In 1960, after several successes, the Coasters were allowed to showcase their individual talents in an album, One By One. Gardner chose his favourite romantic ballads including "Moonlight In Vermont" and "Willow Weep For Me" and sang them very well.

On leaving school, Gardner worked in a department store, and played drums and sang in a group at weekends. He married a girl he impregnated, but he was not up to the responsibility and joined the army. He avoided a posting to Korea by deliberately failing an IQ test and he was discharged after a year.

In 1952 and with $50 to his name, Gardner moved to Los Angeles determined to become a professional singer. In 1954 he replaced Grady Chapman in the Robins, as Chapman was incarcerated. The vocal group was produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who released the records on the Spark label. Inspired by radio dramas, Leiber and Stoller wrote playlets and parodies designed to showcase the group's talent. They had success with two prison songs, "Riot In Cell Block Number 9" and "Framed" and Gardner sang the animated lead vocal on "Smokey Joe's Café" (1955), in which he has to appear highly strung and threatened.

Atlantic Records in New York offered to distribute "Smokey Joe's Café" and wanted the Robins for their subsidiary, Atco. Only Gardner and the bass singer Bobby Nunn were prepared to move to New York and so they recruited Leon Hughes and Billy Guy and became the Coasters.

Leiber and Stoller's songs referred to popular culture and the Coasters' 1957 pop hit, "Searchin'", was about fictional detectives. Billy Guy took the lead but Gardner was prominent on the B-side, a hit in its own right, the playful "Young Blood". Gardner and Guy shared lead vocals on "Yakety Yak" (1958), a wry look at teenage problems, which topped the US charts and featured King Curtis on saxophone. As a result, the Coasters supplanted the Platters as the most popular black group in the US.

The Coasters had revised personnel for "Yakety Yak" as Gardner and Guy were joined by Cornell Gunter and Will "Dub" Jones. Gardner and Guy sang the lead vocals on "Charlie Brown" (loosely based on the cartoon character and their only UK Top 10 single), "That Is Rock And Roll" and "Poison Ivy" (arguably about sexually transmitted disease), while Gardner took the lead on the ensemble pieces "Three Cool Cats" and "Along Came Jones". "Hey Sexy", was not released at the time as Leiber and Stoller thought it too risqué for airplay. Maybe it was, but the Coasters released "Little Egypt", an exceptionally strange record for 1961, which was about a striptease dancer.

Like other doo-wop groups, the Coasters liked to record standards but, with Leiber and Stoller's help, they created novel arrangements. Their versions of "Sweet Georgia Brown" (1957), "Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart" (1958) and "Besame Mucho" (1960) are as distinctive and as original as their hit singles. There is also a brilliant, spirited defence of contemporary trends, "That Is Rock And Roll" (1959).

Although the hits dried up during the British beat boom, many of the bands sang their songs: the Beatles ("Three Cool Cats"), the Hollies ("Ain't That Just Like Me" and "Searchin'") and the Rolling Stones ("Poison Ivy"). Now with Earl "Speedo" Carroll in the line-up, the Coasters still made fine singles – "Down Home Girl" and "Soul Pad" (1967), and "DW Washburn" (1968), which was instantly covered by the Monkees.

The Coasters inspired comedy bands in the UK including the Fourmost and the Barron Knights, but the Coasters made records that could tolerate repeated playing. By the late 1960s, Leiber and Stoller had moved on, and the Coasters, with Gardner, had become an oldies act.

Although members came and went, Gardner remained with the Coasters and eventually owned the name. He became very protective and he challenged Bobby Nunn and Cornel Gunter when they toured with rival outfits. He commented, "I never dreamed that so many problems came with being a star, and so little money, even though I sold millions of records."

In 1987, the various members put aside their differences when the Coasters became the first vocal group to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. Later that year, Gardner moved to Florida with his new wife, Veta, and undertook charity work. In 1994, the Coasters made the UK chart after a 1958 B-side, "Sorry But I'm Gonna Have To Pass" was used on a TV ad.

In 1996, Gardner paid tributes to his early favourites on an album of standards, One Cool Cat.

Gardner fronted the Coasters until 2005 when his son Carl Gardner,Jr became lead vocalist. His autobiography, Yakety Yak: I FoughtBack was published in 2007; he eventually succumbed to a variety of ailments including heart failure, cancer and dementia.

Carl Edward Gardner, singer: born Tyler, Texas 29 April 1928; married twice (two sons, one daughter, three stepsons); died Port St Lucie, Florida 12 June 2011.