Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Unnaturals: The Coasters With No Strings Attached

book cover

Most of us treasure pop moments--junctures in time when it seemed that every week brought a new revelation. I was in love for most of 1966, and will never forget that spell in 1977 when Bleecker Bob was hawking a new piece of punk every week. But for me, May 1957 was even bigger. In the wake of the Diamonds' "Little Darlin'" and the Dell Vikings' glorious "Come Go With Me," and preceding the August onset of Buddy Holly, May was when we first heard the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love" and Ricky Nelson's record debut and--at least as striking--Johnny Mathis's "Wonderful Wonderful." It was also when the Coasters' "Searchin'" blew all of these away.

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. I can find rough parallels in the Clyde McPhatter of "Honey Love" or the Wynonie Harris of "I Like My Baby's Pudding," in Louis Jordan's ability to sound so delighted with a lyric that he's gonna bust out laughing any second. But those are stretches. Fact is, the singer Guy most resembles is either Jerry Leiber himself--Atlantic sachem Jerry Wexler once claimed that "Billy Guy was a surrogate for Jerry's interpretations"--or Guy's neighbor and discoverer Carl Gardner. Guy's big, clear baritone, so wet its growl is a gargle, shaded at whim into rasp or drawl or slur or even lisp and rose without warning into the grand slam falsetto of "Bulldog Drummond." Neither Leiber's intense break on "That Is Rock & Roll" nor his throwaway finale on 50 Coastin' Classics shows such pipes or timing. But Gardner, though a tenor, still sings "Searchin'" for a living. He was the backbone of the Coasters before they knew their name and took as many leads as Guy in their heyday. It was Gardner, for instance, who lost sleep over the beribboned sex object of "Searchin'"'s B side, "Young Blood," which broke top 40 the same week.

That's right, two Coasters songs at once. May 13, Ricky Sings Fats; May 20, Coastermania. Young rock and rollers didn't then know "Down in Mexico" or "Turtle Dovin'," or Leiber and Stoller's productions with the Robins, as the West Coasters were called before half of them migrated from L.A. to New York and Atco Records: for comic social criticism, "Framed," sung by bass man Bobby Nunn; for comic social unrest, "There's a Riot Goin' On," sung by very special guest bass man and future "Louie Louie" composer Richard Berry; and for the premise of a Broadway revue, Gardner's "Smokey Joe's Cafe." So the thrill of their greatest record was pretty hot, and "Young Blood" made it hotter. Bill Millar--whose 1975 biography, along with Claus Rohnisch's well-tended website, is the main source of Coasters facts--has gone so far as to brand it pedophilic: a song about "middle-aged blacks who relished the idea of importuning adolescent girls in the street." A survey of contemporaries of both sexes has failed to locate who anyone who recalls taking it that way; two male hipsters who played in racially integrated bands assumed twentysomethings hitting on a teen queen, but most heard kids coming on to other kids, and several shared my misapprehension that the Coasters themselves were the young bloods.

Who knew how old they were? Even those lucky enough to catch their live show couldn't tell that Gardner and replacement bass man Dub Jones were both 29 while Guy was 21 and Cornel Gunter only 19. What we did know was that--on the major hits, "Searchin'" "Young Blood," "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Along Came Jones," and "Poison Ivy"--they were representing not "middle-aged blacks" but teenagers, and not black teenagers but teenagers who happened to be black. What seemed old about them was the popular culture references "Searchin'" supposedly introduced to rock and roll discourse. With the saving exception of Dragnet's Sergeant Friday, the detectives Guy invoked--Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Boston Blackie, Bulldog Drummond himself--were staples of Jerry Leiber's '40s youth known to the teen audience from old movies on television or radio shows remembered barely if at all. Like Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn on The Colgate Comedy Hour, "Searchin'" taught high school students that pop culture had a history as surely as Shakespeare and Silas Marner.

But this was also an early instance of vernacular intellectuals' urge to certify as popular their own formative influences--always already a little dated, like the "cherry red '53" of Chuck Berry's 1964 "You Never Can Tell," or the alt-country on NPR. In the Coasters' "The Shadow Knows," the radio sleuth of the title solves cases television heroes Marshall Dillon and Wyatt Earp can't. One wonders as well how current the black-cultural references Leiber fed the Coasters were--references submerged in the hits but integral to low-life succes d'estimes from "Smokey Joe's Cafe" to "Idol With the Golden Head" to "D.W. Washburn," not to mention the 1960 tour de force "Shoppin' for Clothes." As May '57 became history, pop music's chroniclers worried about this. In 1970 Charlie Gillett argued that the "indolent and stupid" stereotype implied by Dub Jones's "deep, 'fool' voice" was a tradition of black-on-black comedy, but by 1972 he'd reconsidered: "The trouble with most of Leiber and Stoller's songs is that they describe improbable or incongruous situations and get too many of their laughs from making black clowns out of the singers." Millar lets Johnny Otis, who still thinks he's owed royalties on "Hound Dog," complain at length that Leiber and Stoller "dwelled entirely on a sort of street society." And in 1989, Coasters fan Dave Marsh regretfully concluded that the Coasters' "subtleties and universality" had been "overwhelmed" by "a climate in which covert race-baiting runs the country, from the streets of New York and Los Angeles to our political campaigns."

I had thought scrutinizing such claims might tease out the Coasters' affinities with minstrelsy, but the claims didn't survive much scrutiny. The Game, Condoleezza Rice--these are black people whose role-playing white people have a right to find morally noxious. Not the Coasters, who as per Gillett extend a black comedic tradition--which as Gillett doesn't mention traces back to minstrelsy because show business does. And now Gillett has re-reconsidered: "I was writing before Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, before hip-hoppers turned everything on its head in terms of presenting black life in songs, and before Quentin Tarantino start[ed] writing 'nigger' into his scripts for both white and black characters to say." Marsh specifically denies that the Coasters invited racist interpretation in the '50s. And two crucial African-American critics are fans: Mel Watkins, whose history of African American comedy singles out "Shoppin' for Clothes," which "received scant notice outside the black community," and Nelson George, who gives credit for the Coasters' "deft vignettes" to "two young Jewish men [who] grew up around blacks"--which they did, Leiber as a ghetto grocer's son, Stoller in the kind of family that sent their kids to interracial camps, both as blues and jazz fans who joined black and Pachuco social clubs, respectively, in their teens. So maybe it's time to reclaim the subtleties and universality of an artistic entity specializing in what Leiber once called "the joke that the poor tell on themselves," an entity Greil Marcus reduced to eight words in 1979: "Stepin Fetchit as advance man for black revolt." The Coasters don't get enough respect.

Unlike Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the Everlys, the Coasters were not Rock and Roll Hall of Fame charter members--they had to wait a year for the 1987 batch, which also included Ricky Nelson, Clyde McPhatter, Louis Jordan, and Leiber and Stoller. Nor has their star risen since--not compared to such fellow '87s as B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye. It doesn't help that they were comedians--funny never gets respect, because it doesn't give it. And their body of major work isn't large, although neither is Little Richard's or Buddy Holly's, or in any obvious way seminal. The deep reason racial anxieties cut into their status is that they don't seem like primal creators. They permit no fantasy of the natural. The problem is less content than structure--the calculation of the whole project. The Coasters are seen as producers' puppets, like the Monkees or 'N Sync--famously, not only did Leiber plot out every line, Stoller wrote King Curtis's sax breaks. That the concept had white men pulling black men's strings is merely an additional drawback.

As someone who retches quietly at the idea that Stax-Volt was a lost biracial utopia, I refuse to get teary-eyed about Leiber and Stoller. They were so gifted that their signature product proved inimitable--unlike "Love Me" or "I (Who Have Nothing)" or their other stroke of genius, the violins they added to the Drifters' "There Goes My Baby," which someone else would have thought of (the Robins tried to get them out of RCA in 1953) but which as a matter of actual historical development was a decisive mutation in the evolution of r&b. But they were also, Leiber especially, incorrigible wise-asses and aspiring aesthetes, hipsters who quit r&b in the late '60s and produced little of interest thereafter. Nevertheless, to disrespect the Coasters is to set exceedingly high standards of racially integrated art. As Nelson George avers and even Johnny Otis allows, Leiber and Stoller wrote their songs from within a black culture they knew intimately and observed acutely--not all of black culture, as if anyone could do that, but the part of it that generated the music they loved most. Inflected by Leiber's incipient pretensions, incongruous associations, and love of radio, that intimacy underpinned even the teenified "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown." And it was turned into music by four strong black men. Eight Coasters all told recorded between 1956 and 1968. But there were just four hitmaking Coasters from 1957 to 1961: Carl Gardner, Billy Guy, Cornel Gunter, and Dub Jones.

Only Gardner is still alive, and only Gardner has left a substantial record--an unpublished autobiography. But the others are clear enough in outline. Bass man Jones was shy and religious yet made for comedy. He first displayed his depth with the Cadets, who anticipated the Coasters' shtick with the 1956 novelty "Stranded in the Jungle," a James Johnson-Ernestine Smith composition recommended to students of racial stereotyping. Jones quit in 1967 after he contracted fear of flying and was replaced by the title character in Johnny Cymbal's "Mr. Bass Man," Ronnie Bright. Texan-born Guy teamed with a Chicano partner in a successful L.A. comic duo called Bip and Bop when he was just 18, and was enlisted by Gardner, who knew him from the block. Endowed with timing and imagination as well as that baritone, he often devised his own deliveries, adapting or overruling Leiber. By the time he got spooked by the same airplane incident as Jones, he'd made several solo stabs, and for a while he reportedly earned a living doing blue material in Vegas lounges. Cornel Gunter was an out gay who was built like a prize fighter and served as the Coasters' muscle when things got rough on the road. As the group's best-trained singer, he often corrected the others when they forgot their harmonies, and eventually wrote some voicings himself--on "Shoppin' for Clothes," for instance. He left to back Dinah Washington in 1961 and after she fired him formed the first fake Coasters. Gunter was a notorious liar. No one knows why he was shot to death in Las Vegas in 1990.

As with most musicians, the bulk of the Coasters' niggardly income came in on the road, where their comic polish was hell to follow. Leiber and Stoller never witnessed a Coasters show until well into the '60s and contributed nothing to their routines, which Guy and Gunter usually invented. Not very puppetlike. This wasn't a George Martin-Beatles or Quincy Jones-Michael Jackson situation where the operator with the educated line of patter gets credit for the genius of his social inferiors. Leiber and Stoller were the creators here. The group was their concept, the members their material; Stoller's piano was the lynchpin of the Coasters' superb interracial bands. But even in the studio Guy and Gunter were collaborators, not stooges. And Guy and Gunter weren't the guys with the big ideas--Carl Gardner was.

If Leiber and Stoller imposed their ideas on anyone, it was Gardner, who will nevertheless celebrate 50 years as a Coaster in November. From a family of self-described "house niggers" in Tyler, Texas--one sister sang opera in New York for a while--Gardner says he learned early on how to get ahead by catering to white people. A born-again Christian now, he once followed Malcolm X into Islam, and he's a bitter critic of white racism. Gardner moved to L.A. at 25 to become a big-band singer. But, he reports, when Robins-Coasters manager Lester Sill told him, "'Either you sing these particular tunes, Carl, or we just have to forget it,' I says, 'O.K. money's first' so I took this group thing." Gardner made side money, though less than the other Robins, as a pimp--one white girl, one black. He's angry to this day that Leiber and Stoller broke their promise to bill the post-Robins "Carl Gardner and the Coasters," not least because it might have simplified all those trademark-infringement suits in the '80s and '90s. Live he was Zeppo, the straight man and romantic lead, and although he dismisses the notion that the Coasters' songs "depicted blacks as ignorant and superstitious," he never gave up his pop dreams. In 1960, with the Coasters' six top 10 hits behind them, he got Leiber and Stoller to let them do a standards album. One by One was cut in two days to specially prepared orchestral tapes. As Gardner brags, his rapt, pellucid attack does "Satin Doll" proud, though I doubt Atlantic buried it so he wouldn't make like Ben E. King and go solo. But to my ear, Gunter is the star of the set, lisp and all.

Gardner's is the familiar saga of a star impoverished by changing fashion, greedy management, and callous royalty disbursement. He obsesses on the parade of fake Coasters--Gunter had some, Guy had some, Nunn had some, an ex-Robin who was never in the Coasters had some, their relatives had some--and overestimates the moneys due him more wildly than WEA underestimates them. But late in life he married a woman who rebuilt his career, and he is one of the rare oldies acts who doesn't cater to white people by performing other artists' hits--his DVD offers no "Blue Moon" or "Get a Job," just a "Stormy Monday." If in his perfect world he would have been a big-band singer, he settled for organ-and-horns r&b when he recorded his first solo album at 68, and at 68 his tenor was too shot to handle "I'll Be Seeing You" or "Don't Let the Sun Catch Crying," as the bonus borrowings from One by One make clarion clear.

In all this, Gardner shares much with Leiber and Stoller. Some of the Coasters' greatest records were created after "Poison Ivy" became their last top 10 in 1959. Neither "Run Red Run," a minor hit about a monkey who learns to play poker and steals his teacher's car, nor its r&b-charting B side "What About Us," a joke that the poor tell on the rich, quite earns Greil Marcus's "Stepin Fetchit drops his mask, and pulls a gun," but they were pretty redolent. Stoller judges the tent-show fantasy "Little Egypt" "the epitome of the comic playlets." "Bad Detective," "Soul Pad," "Down Home Girl," and "D.W. Washburn" weren't altogether au courant, but aged well. And anyone troubled by the unprimality of Leiber and Stoller's control-freak side--one reason "Searchin'" has such life may be that, according to Leiber, it was recorded in nine minutes with the board gone haywire like some Chess mess--should compare "Shoppin' for Clothes" to the looser Kent Harris record it appropriated, because its precision tells. Curtis Mayfield listened and learned; the Beatles' rendition of "Searchin'" was why George Martin signed them. Yet as the hits dried up, Leiber and Stoller--who back in 1958 had told Time magazine: "Kids nine to fourteen make up our market, we're tired of writing rock 'n' roll, but we can't stop"--decided to stop. Carl Gardner had his pop dreams, and they had their art dreams. There was Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" Then there was that Joan Morris and William Bolcom album--"Either a different, more conservative kind of art," John Rockwell observed in 1978, or "inflated and pretentious overreaching on the part of songwriters who should have stuck with simpler forms."

Fact is, both Leiber and Stoller and Carl Gardner were best when, as Leiber described his ideal pianist in "That Is Rock & Roll," they played between the cracks. Is the monkey in "Run Red Run" Nat Turner or John Muhammed--or J. Fred Muggs? Is the protagonist of the Coasters' crudest hit sneaking a cigarette or setting a trash-can fire? "Charlie Brown"'s crap game is a cheap move, a big fat slice of watermelon foisted on Dub Jones's Charlie--who, whatever his vocal presence, is no more black than Dub Jones's Salty Sam, the six-reeler villain bedeviled by a white-on-white cliche who shares Dub's surname in "Along Came Jones." At worst, Charlie is a trouble-making goof-off who happens to be black, a small-time teen hero whose "Why's everybody always pickin' on me" is as universal as his slow walk, although one originated in white culture and the other in black. Once he's out there, of course, he's ripe for reinterpretation. In my life, "Charlie Brown" provided the beat to which a Vermont tent-show queen--white, weary, with a scar on her tummy and no rubies in sight--gave me my first disquieting glimpse of vulva.

There really is a street society, and whatever its limitations, in the '50s it was a crucial corrective to postwar fantasies of domesticity. Its African-American variant lured Carl Gardner as well as Jerry Leiber. It is to the credit of all those who created the Coasters, black and white, that their version of that society deployed racial stereotypes with the purpose of muddling them, turning them into jokes that have no end--because that's so much more bearable than a tragedy that has no end.

Experience Music Project, Seattle Washington, April 16, 2005