June 12, 2011 – Carl Gardner (the Coasters) was born on April 29, 1928 in Tyler, Texas. As a singer, his first major career success came with The Robins, a rhythm and blues group that had a big hit in 1955, “Smokey Joe’s Café”.
After leaving that group, in 1956 Gardner formed the Coasters with the Robins’ bass singer Bobby Nunn, Leon Hughes and Billy Guy. The Coasters became the musical vehicle for the songs of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who used rock ‘n’ roll to create a hilarious chronicle of American life, particularly American teenage life.
“Along Came Jones” satirized TV Westerns and “Charlie Brown” honored the original slacker. “Poison Ivy” may be the only pop hit ever to mention Calamine lotion, and “Searchin'” turned a routine love song into a pop culture drama by having the elusive girl pursued by contemporary TV stars like Sugarfoot and Paladin from “Have Gun Will Travel.”
Gardner took pride in the group’s ability to deliver tongue-in-cheek humor while still creating songs that sounded compelling on a car radio.
With the line-up that included new members Cornel Gunter and Will “Dub” Jones, the Coasters went on to produce several enduring classics of 1950s rock and roll music including “Yakety Yak”, “Charlie Brown”, and “Poison Ivy”. They also had a two-sided hit in 1957, “Youngblood” (on which Gardner sang lead) and “Searchin”.
At the 1987 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, where the Coasters became the first vocal group inducted, he said he considered the group professional entertainers rather than the streetcorner singers who were popular in the late 1950s.
“People may have called it doo-wop or novelty music,” he said. “But we sang songs that lasted.”
Carl died at age 83 from congestive heart failure and vascular dementia on June 12, 2011.
Musings from Carl:
The flight home after last night’s performance had been successful, but had left me for some reason more stressed out than usual. You see I actually hate flying, but it sort of comes with the job. I still love to perform, but not as much as I have had to. However, I also like to eat good. I’m at the stage though where I find myself getting kind of bored, I’m also at the age. You know the age. It’s when you realize your eyes have seen it all and you are beginning to see it all over again. And yet you don’t really want to. But like I said, I gotta eat.
Thank God I’m back home now, safe and sound. Although it’s three o’clock in the morning, and I’m emotionally drained and weak I simply cannot sleep. I’ve wandered my way through the house, like some sort of Charlie Brown who was missing something. Something earned, something promised, but not yet delivered. So I sat myself down in my home office and for some reason began to think about a few of the unknown oddities in my career. Things like acid rocker Jimi Hendrix once backing my Coasters group, and Paul McCartney, cornering me years ago in some small club and bending my ear, saying that he and the other Beatles had enjoyed my work, and warning me that in the very near future I might just recognize some of their upcoming stuff as my own. I sat there in the dark, surrounded by the entrapments of businesses around the world. Fax machines, files, multiple phone lines, computers, publicity photos, bios, live answering service, and all the rest. I couldn’t help but wonder if Paul McCartney, or any of the others in the multitude of superstars I had the joy of meeting, ever experienced this same exact moment. A moment when you wonder what actually happened? You sort of peer back into the period of your life when you arrived at your peak. Then as your mind wanders through your heyday, you find yourself heading towards your present situation when you are just coasting.
I was a pioneer, until they changed the sound. And then they became the pioneers, until somebody like Michael Jackson came along and changed not only the sound, but also the rules on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and everybody else. I’m trying hard not to be bitter here in the dark. After all, I am still the lead singer of the very first group to ever be inducted to the legendary ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME. But can I now pioneer the sound back on myself, like fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Tina Turner has done? Like Little Richard and Ike and Tina Turner, at my million selling zenith my group was considered a “novelty act”, but unlike the others I ran a clean act. And that I feel has been one of the key ingredient of our continued success. Novelty acts have been notoriously hard to place without a current hit record. But despite that fact, I comfort myself here in the dark, that almost forty years into a career that people still want my type of act. And that’s something to be proud about.
I’m proud of the accomplishments in my career. The list of television performances that span the decades and include everything from the show biz staples of yesteryear, like the Ed Sullivan Show, several Dick Clark Shows, all the way up to the staples of today, Entertainment Tonight and even tabloid TV’s Inside Edition.
My concern appears as my group’s lead singer covers the scope from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, all the way around the world to the London Palladium. Also, the New York “Fearsome Foursome”, the Apollo, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden and the Queen Mother of them all Carnegie Hall.
My lead vocals have been coveted by Hollywood in many movies including Stand By Me, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger – Danny DeVito blockbuster, TWINS. I have also several TV commercials to my credit.
I’ve tangled with the mob, broken the color barrier in Las Vegas, cursed out racist audiences who had come to hear “race music”, and at times carried a gun on stage. At times I got run off of stage, and right out of town. But yet and still I managed to sell over thirty million records on the National Record Charts, in my time. My group has often been ripped off by many claiming to be me, using my name with their voice and cashing my check. I steeled myself and stood up to it all. The glamour, the danger, the glory and the bullshit. In my weakest moment I still marched on.
Through all the ups and downs of a joyous and yet painful career, I have come out unlike many others. Still performing, still standing, still sane, and intact. The goal was to be rich and famous. And I became both, for a while. But in the end I have ended up coasting on the fame, and trying to see just who had gotten rich.
Now I know why I’m sitting here in my office in the wee hours of the morning staring down the dawn. I know what I’m missing. I know what I earned, I know what was promised, and I realize now with some bitterness what little I got. Granted it’s comfortable and not the nightmare and losing battle that many other artists of my time have endured, but it is not what was promised.
I’m a long way from my hometown of Tyler, Texas. Although I didn’t put Tyler, Texas on the map, the way the Branch Davidians put Waco, Texas on the map, that was never my original intention. All I ever wanted to do was sing, what I actually did was much more.
I never dreamed that so many problems and dangers came with being a star. And so little money, even though I’ve sold millions and millions of records. My story is wonderful given the circumstances, yet shocking given the outcome. Thank God, I’ve moved past the bitterness and anger that for years plagued me. With only faith and sheer determination I was able to overcome all of the horror, and begin to write about it.
This is my story, straight forward and explicit. My name is Carl Gardner, and I am lead singer and founder of THE COASTERS.
Unfinished! from Carl’s ‘BLACK GOLD TEXAS TEA’.
I never had any intention of staying in Tyler, Texas. Never in my life. My first thoughts were, “I ‘m going to be somebody in my time and get the hell out of here.” When I was ten years old, I knew I was ready. I had been singing since I was five and from the day I started singing I just felt that I was going to be a singer.
When I was coming up, black people didn’t dare do a thing. Most of them wouldn’t have even thought of it. Not at that time, and definitely not in that town. Tyler was a prosperous town located in hot and humid east Texas. It was extremely racially segregated during that time. You probably would have considered Tyler the deep south or even worse, called it Dixie. However, it did have one redeeming feature for some. Unlike Mississippi, Georgia, North and South Carolina, the state of Texas had gone and passed one good law for blacks. As I remember, that made it just a little different for us living there during those horrendous times of blatant racism and almost total segregation.
Strangely enough, the law had to do with food. As I recall, any colored person, as we were called at that time, could go right into any of our local restaurants and purchase food right at the counter. Mind you, we didn’t dare sit down and eat it there, but we could get it to go. An added bonus was you could also enter and leave by the establishment’s front door. In any other part of the south, if you would have been crazy enough to try something like this, you would probably have been murdered or worse, dragged through the streets and hung like a piece of fruit from a tree by your neck until dead. In that day, southern trees were known to bear strange fruit. Publicly, my father, Robert Gardner, was very much a gentleman. He never went down the street without a shirt and tie on. Some of the neighbors said he had a little spirit that lived in him that they called Uncle Tom. But the things that he did for white people in our town I didn’t think were terribly Uncle Tom-ish. He wore a hat everywhere he went, when he saw a white man or a white lady, he’d go over to them and say, “Good evening, ma’am. Good evening, sir. How are you today?” He tipped his hat to one and all, black or white. He was a hell of a gentleman. And even if he was Uncle Tom-ish in his ways, he fed his family. Sometimes he would embarrass me. He would go around to some of the rich people in town and say, “Good evening, Mr. Grayson. Nice day today. Don’t forget, it’s Christmas coming up. “And I used to get very angry with Dad when he would do things like this. But Mr. Grayson would say, “Bob, I won’t forget you. “Everybody called him Bob. When Christmas would come, Mr. Grayson would give him a twenty dollar bill. Some of his other white friends that he had been kind to would give him a ten, a twenty, and that was one way that he knew of getting money in that time and in that town.
Dad came from a family of an interracial heritage. My dad would often say he really didn’t know how old he was. Some of his family were so white in appearance that they were often mistaken for white people. I can remember his one cousin, Alice, that was so white looking that as a young child I was afraid to walk downtown with her. People of any color would always approach her as a white woman. Dad would often comment, it how he and his brothers and sisters had almost been born into slavery. When I asked my father what he meant by this, he began explaining to me what life on the plantation had been like for those in his family that were born before him. “Well, you know,” he’d start, “if you go back into our years of slavery, you’ll discover that many of the white slave owners would split their slaves into two groups. The lighter ones worked in and around the plantation house, thus earning themselves the title of “house niggers.” They were taught to serve the owners graciously and also to be gentlemen and ladies to the owners’ guests. They were trained in a very genteel manner and some received a very minimal education. The darker slaves were placed to work hard in the fields and were called “field hands” and received the roughest and cruelest of treatment from the master. He continued explaining to me how black people came in so many different colors and hues. He said, “Almost always, if you had a particularly good and sexy looking young black girl, or even a black boy, for that matter, working in the mansion, they would usually become the bed partners of either the master himself, his wife, his daughters or his sons, and sometimes both. More often than not, children were conceived from these various unions. These children would usually be very light in complexion and color. They would have the fortune of being raised within the plantation house itself instead of in the fields with the other slave children.” My Dad felt this is how his family had come to be so light in complexion.