Lead singer of The Coasters who found that being a star brought more danger than money
Published 19/06/2011 | 05:00
Carl Gardner, who died on June 12 aged 83, was the founder and lead singer of The Coasters, the American singing group whose British hits included Yakety-Yak (1958) and Poison Ivy (1959).
Hailed as early pop masterpieces, their biggest hits were conceived as mini-comic operas, with scripts that owed much to the radio plays of the Fifties, and they sold more than 30 million records.
In 1953, the group were working as The Robins in Los Angeles when Gardner signed them to the Spark label, owned by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. When they transferred to the bigger Atlantic label, they changed their name to The Coasters.
During the group's rise to fame there were several changes in personnel, but Gardner remained constant as lead tenor. After some early hits in the R&B Top 10, The Coasters broke through into the mainstream pop charts in 1958 with Yakety-Yak, a novelty number dashed off by Leiber and Stoller in the time it took Leiber to make a cup of tea.
With its repeated shouted warning "Don't talk back!" and the saxophone interjections of King Curtis, Yakety-Yak topped the US charts and reached number 12 in Britain. Although the song was said to epitomise Leiber and Stoller's "white kid's view of a black person's conception of white society", most teenagers just loved it for its light-hearted originality.
It was followed by Charlie Brown, which featured another distinctive saxophone riff by King Curtis, and a pay-off line -- "Why is ev'rybody always pickin' on me?" -- that became a catchphrase. In 1959 it reached number two in the US and number six in Britain.
Carl Edward Gardner was born on April 29, 1928, at Tyler, in the Texas Bible belt, to a black father and Comanche Indian mother.
Although his father worked as the bellcaptain at a luxury hotel and ran a bootleg liquor business on the side, Carl remembered his childhood as "dirt poor".
He started singing when he was five years old, and while still at high school had a regular spot singing on a local radio station until the Ku Klux Klan had him sacked on account of his colour.
On leaving school, he took a job at a local department store, but when he got a girl pregnant he panicked and ran away to join the US Army. He avoided a posting to Korea by failing an IQ test, which led to an honourable discharge after only one year.
He returned to Texas, joined a band to get singing experience and was working in a nightclub when a stranger told him he was leaving for California the next day. With $50 in his pocket, Gardner hitched a ride with him to Los Angeles.
Having left The Robins, Gardner formed The Coasters with Bobby Nunn in 1955. Their 1959 hit Poison Ivy, which got to number 15 in the British charts, was later covered by the Rolling Stones, but The Coasters themselves were eclipsed during the beat boom of the Sixties, and the hits dried up.
Often imitated, the original group continued to appear in revival shows and found further success when their songs were covered by other artists, such as The Monkees with DW Washburn and the Rolling Stones again with Down Home Girl.
"I've tangled with the mob," Gardner wrote, "broken the colour barrier in Las Vegas, cursed out racist audiences who had come to hear 'race music' and at times carried a gun on stage." He said The Coasters had often been "ripped off" by other artists claiming to be him, using his name "and cashing my cheque".
"I never dreamed that so many problems and danger came with being a star," Garner added. "And so little money, even though I've sold millions of records."
In 2007 he published his autobiography, Yakety Yak I Fought Back, recounting his life in the music business.
In 1951, Carl Gardner married Ladessa Richardson, a schoolteacher. His second wife, Veta Gardner, survives him with their son.