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GARDNER, CARL EDWARD

GARDNER, CARL EDWARD (1928 – 2011). Carl Edward Gardner, lead singer of the Coasters, was born in Tyler, Texas, on April 29, 1928. He was the son of Robert and Rebecca Gardner. His father was a hotel bellman who, according to Gardner’s autobiography, Yakety Yak I Fought Back: My Life With the Coasters, ran a side business in bootleg liquor. His mother, a Comanche Indian, had a fine singing voice and was the source of his own vocal talent. A music teacher, a German classical pianist, instructed Gardner in singing and also trained his sister, Carol, who would later become an opera singer. As a young man, Gardner sang at parties for a living in Tyler. He attended Emmett Scott High School and sang and played drums with the territorial band of Lasalle Gunter. He spent a year in the United States Army. In 1952 he married Ladessa Richards, and they had a daughter. Eventually he moved to California in the early 1950s to pursue a career in the music business and left his wife and daughter behind in Tyler.

In 1954 he joined the Robins, a rhythm-and-blues and doo-wop group, as a replacement for a singer who was in jail. Gardner stayed on and recorded with the group on the Spark label in 1954 and 1955. His first major career success came with the Robins, with the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller song, "Smokey Joe's Café," the first hit to feature Gardner on vocals. It attracted the attention of Atlantic Records, and the company made arrangements for the Robins and Leiber and Stoller to relocate to New York, but when three members of the group chose to stay in Los Angeles, Gardner and bassist Bobby Nunn recruited new members and the new band was dubbed the Coasters. Subsequently, Atlantic Records signed the group.

They were one of the first major black groups of the rock-and-roll era and specialized in humorous songs featuring characters who often reflected the problems facing teenagers at the time; their music appealed to both black and white audiences. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote much of the group’s material, and the Coasters made their debut recording, “Down in Mexico,” in 1956. A Latin-tinged, bluesy song, it featured Gardner’s clear-voiced and plaintive style.

The Coasters’ first big hits, “Searchin’” and “Young Blood” (the B-side of “Searchin’”) were released in 1957. The Coasters went on to record enduring classics of 1950s rock-and-roll, including “Yakety Yak,” "Charlie Brown," and "Poison Ivy." With these recordings their work took a lighter turn and reflected youthful problems in an adult world. “Yakety Yak,” was a warning to obey parental wishes; “Charlie Brown” painted the portrait of a class clown; while “Poison Ivy” dealt with the first hormonal stirrings in a young man. The Coasters communicated with 1950s teenagers through these “playlets,” as Jerry Leiber called them. Texas-born sax player King Curtis was often heard on their recordings, and he contributed the tenor solo on “Yakety Yak.” From 1956 to 1961 the Coasters enjoyed enormous popularity in America and England.

Their popularity began to wane, however, and sales of singles such as “Little Egypt” and “Run, Red, Run” were way below those of previous releases. Eventually the “British Invasion” displaced groups such as the Coasters.

The original Coasters were Carl Gardner, Bobby Nunn, Leon Hughes, and Billy Guy. Personnel changes occurred over the years, but during the group’s heyday, from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, the lineup included Gardner, Guy, Cornel Gunter and Will Jones. These four members were inducted as the Coasters into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. They had the distinction of being the first vocal group to be inducted. The Coasters continued touring with a lineup fronted by Gardner and including Ronnie Bright, Jimmy Norman, and guitarist Thomas “Curley” Palmer, from El Paso, Texas.

Their major album releases included The Coasters (1957), The Coasters' Greatest Hits (1959), The Coasters One By One (1960), Coast Along with The Coasters (1962), That Is Rock & Roll (1965), Their Greatest Recordings: The Early Years (1971), The Coasters On Broadway (King 1972), as well as numerous other compilations and greatest hits albums. Surprisingly, the Coasters never appeared in any of the many rock-and-roll movies released during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Carl Gardner’s first marriage ended in divorce. He married Veta Ryfkogel in 1987 and moved to Port St. Lucie, Florida, in 1990. Throughout the 1990s Gardner and the Coasters continued to perform, especially in the regions of New York, Texas, and Florida. Gardner was honored as a member of the Coasters by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1994 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999. He also tirelessly pursued promoters and singers who attempted to capitalize on the Coasters name with their own knockoff groups, a source of frustration for Gardner in later years. In 2007 he successfully lobbied the Florida legislature to pass a law that restricted the use of the Coasters name to only a group that included at least one original member. He campaigned for artists’ rights, including promoting health insurance and back royalty agreements for aging pioneer musicians. He helped raise money to fight cancer following his own battle with the disease in the 1990s.

Over the course of fifty years Gardner had worked with ten other singers and three guitarists, but he was the only original member to be in every incarnation of the Coasters. When Gardner retired in 2005, his son Carl, Jr., of Dallas, took over as lead singer. Carl, Jr., had been touring with the Coasters since 1998. Carl Gardner, Sr., died on June 12, 2011, in Port St. Lucie, Florida, after suffering with congestive heart failure and vascular dementia, as well as Alzheimer’s disease. He was survived by his wife, two sons, a daughter, and three stepsons.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

The Coasters Web Site (http://www.angelfire.com/mn/coasters), accessed July 7, 2011. Carl Gardner and Veta Gardner, Yakety Yak I Fought Back: My Life With The Coasters (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2007). Charlie Gillette, The Sound of the City (London: Sphere Books, 1971). The Guardian (London), June 13, 2011. New York Times, June 13, 2011. Graham Wood, An A-Z of Rock and Roll (London: Studio Vista, 1971).  

Tony Wilson

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Tony Wilson, "GARDNER, CARL EDWARD ," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fgaas), accessed April 19, 2014. Uploaded on May 3, 2013. Modified on May 29, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.