What record do you think of when someone mentions the Coasters? Most people would have said “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” or “Poison Ivy.” That was before Quentin Tarantino entered the picture with his 2007 film Death Proof. The film featured a scene in which Vanessa Ferlito gives Kurt Russell a lap dance which is decidedly not family-friendly while the Coaster’s “Down In Mexico” plays on a jukebox. Suddenly a lot of people, including me, had a new Coasters favorite.
Some people remember the Coasters as a clown act, and they were certainly funny. But there was much more than that to them. For a start they had those great songs, including the ones mentioned above, written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. The Coasters began working with Lieber and Stoller in 1953, four years after they began their career in Los Angeles as the Robins.
The songwriters had a small label called Spark. In 1955 they cut “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” with the Robins and soon realized that the record was going to be too big for Spark to handle. That led to the other big partnership of the Coasters’ career, with Atlantic Records. The company picked up “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and gave Lieber and Stoller an independent producers and songwriters contract.
Not all of the Robins were sure about the wisdom of the move to the larger label, and the group splintered. Lead singer Carl Gardner and bass singer Bobby Nunn put together a new group that they called the Coasters, the name inspired by their location in California, and stayed with Lieber and Stoller. The rest of that initial Coasters lineup included Billy Guy, Leon Hughes, and guitarist Adolph Jacobs. With the group assembled, and the songwriters and producers on board, the Coasters rocketed out of the gate with their first single, “Down In Mexico,” in 1956.
No, it wasn’t a huge crossover hit, but it did go Top 10 on the R&B chart. What “Down In Mexico” was however was a great record, with its dark, mysterious sound, lyrics about an ill-fated trip south of the border matching the musical mood, and Latin rhythms, all adding up to a remarkably appealing record. Best of all, the Coasters were just getting started.
In 1957 the Coasters hit again with the epochal two-sided smash “Young Blood/Searchin” which was a Top 10 pop hit. A bit of a dry spell followed for the Coasters, and Lieber and Stoller decided to move east to New York City so that they could be closer to the Atlantic Records headquarters. Not all of the Coasters wanted to go however. Nunn and Hughes left the group, to be replaced by “Dub” Jones, and Obie Jessie who only stuck around for a short time before he was in turn replaced by Cornell Gunter.
The move to New York proved to be just what Lieber and Stoller, and the Coasters, needed. Their first single there in 1958 was “Yakety Yak,” which featured King Curtis on sax. It was a #1 hit on the pop and R&B charts. They followed that with the equally madcap “Charlie Brown” which found its way to the #2 spot on both charts. The hits just kept coming for the Coasters with records like “Along Came Jones,” “Poison Ivy,” and “Shoppin’ for Clothes.” The final Coasters’ Top 30 hit was the burlesque dancer tribute “Little Egypt” in 1961.
After “Little Egypt” the Coasters lineup started to change again. One notable who joined the group was Earl “Speedo” Carroll, who had been with the Cadillacs. Despite the presence of Carroll the hits stopped coming, and when Lieber and Stoller left Atlantic in 1963 the Coasters’ fate was sealed. The group followed their songwriter/producers out the door three years later. As unlikely as it may have seemed, there was one more hit for the Coasters, “Love Potion #9,” which slipped into the Top 100 on the pop chart in 1971.
In 1987 the Coasters became the first vocal group inducted into the Rock Roll Hall of Fame, and that’s as it should be. They were there at the beginning, and in many ways, they started it all. Gardner owns the rights to the Coasters name, but that hasn’t stopped several groups calling themselves the Coasters from touring the oldies circuit. You can still find some of them out there despite the fact that many of the original and subsequent members are gone.
The video below may be NSFW. I guess it depends on where you work.