Gary James' Interview With Carl Gardner of
The Coasters

They've been labeled "The Clown Princes Of Rock and Roll", but founding member Carl Gardner might just have the last laugh. Nearly 50 years after The Coasters made rock 'n roll a household phrase, The Coasters are still going strong. It's Carl Gardner we can all thank for that. In 1987, The Coasters were the first group inducted into Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. In 1996, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in London, England. In 1994, the group received The Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award and in 1999, they were the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame inductees. In 1997, Carl Gardner was honored by the mayor of Port St. Lucie, Florida and was given the key to the city for his lifelong contribution to the music industry. And finally, on February 26th, 2000, The Coasters were honored by President Clinton in celebration of their 45th Anniversary in show business.

You know the songs that made The Coasters famous - "Yakety Yak", "Poison Ivy", "Charlie Brown", "Love Potion Number 9" and the list goes on and on. Now read the story behind the group as we present a rare interview with founding Coasters' member Carl Gardner.

Q - Carl, did you have any idea when you were just starting out that music would be your career?

A - Of course. I started singing when I was 5 years old. I was a prodigy. I knew that one day I would be up there finally to start my career. I lived in Tyler, Texas...went to California and got started.

Q - How is it that you're exclusive owner of the federal trademark of The Coasters name? You must've been the businessman of the group. Usually, the managers of the groups in the 1950s owned the name, didn't they?

A - Yeah, well I didn't let anybody do me like that. (laughs) I founded the group. I started the group. I'll be damned if I'm gonna let someone steal it away from me. So, my wife now (Veta) is the manager and takes care of all my business. We work in a lot of places, casinos, everywhere. She takes care of everything. I'm getting ready to cut a new record called "Beautiful Day". That'll be out after I come back from Connecticut. I'll be in Connecticut for 3 days. (Jan , 15th to Jan 17th, 2005) with Bowser. (from Sha Na Na) He's going to be opening the show. They've got about 8 or 10 acts. We have Little Anthony, The Coasters and so on.

Q - What did it mean to you to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland?

A - At the time they inducted me, I thought it was kind of nice, but all of a sudden I said to myself, I didn't get paid, so what the hell do I care. (laughs) They owe me 50 million dollars. Where's my money? We had 12 - 14 gold records. Where's the money?

Q - Is it true that The Coasters have sold over 137 million records?

A - I believe it with all my heart and soul. That's why I'm telling you they owe me $50 million. You see, everybody in that era will say you sold a million copies in America. That's America. What about overseas? So, as far as I'm concerned, all that stuff was sold everywhere. Somebody stole all the money. I don't know who the hell it was. But, I'm a Born Again Christian, so let me get off that cursing. (laughs)

Q - Would the record sales be more than 137 million or don't you know?

A - I don't completely know, but, I'm sure that's about right. Nobody else confronted me about it. No one will talk. We started with Leiber - Stoller in Los Angeles. We started recording with them first. Our first tune that we did was a thing called "Down In Mexico". Then, we went with Atlantic Records. I started with a group called The Robins.

Q - I was going to ask you about the history leading up to The Coasters in just a bit. But first, did Jimi Hendrix once back The Coasters?

A - Yes, he did. But at the time, it wasn't so interesting with me and I paid him no mind 'cause he wasn't there yet. So, I don't really know what year, what date. Somebody's gotta know and I didn't. And I'm the boss and I didn't know. But, he did sing with us. He played behind us. He wasn't famous himself then. Then later on, he became famous and I said 'wow! This man played behind us?' He became very huge.

Q - You don't recall the name he using at the time do you? Was he going by the name Jimi Hendrix?

A - Well, he could've been Jimi Hendrix, but I can't remember...he was just starting out himself. Somebody else, I'm trying to think of, played guitar with us also and is very famous now. He lives in Hawaii and plays jazz. I can't recall his name. He played behind us too at one time. It was so hard to put things together because we were fighting the system, trying to get our money. We had all these hit records and didn't receive all the money we should've received. It hurt me very bad. I was very mad at everybody. I couldn't help myself. Most of the guys in my era will tell you, man, I didn't make no money, but I sure had a good time! I'm the kind of guy to say I wanted to make money. I had a good time, but that wasn't on my mind, it was money. Where's my money. That's what I cared about. All the can forget about it. Where's my money? We did have a lot of women, but that's not important. It's the dollar bill. I would've been very, very rich today. But, The Coasters I think were one of the first groups to turn pop in that era. Leiber and Stoller reminded me of that and I said yeah, you're right.

Q - Paul McCartney cornered you in a small club once and was talking to you. Do you recall where that was and what year?

A - I think it was The Peppermint Lounge in Florida.

Q - In 1964?

A - Yeah. They had just gotten here and were not as famous as they should've been at the time. We were in a club down in Florida. That was in Miami. They came in the backdoor and they let them in. We were performing. They sat down and caught both shows. When we finished, I went over to talk to them. I don't remember the words we spoke of, about the music business. But, they weren't famous, so I didn't pay that much attention. They were looking at us a famous. But, we were not looking at them the same way. Later on, they got very famous and so did it happen with Mick Jagger. Mick came to Harlem one day and I got up close to him and we talked. He said 'Come on Carl, let's go get some girls'. That was an era when blacks and whites together was not too cool. (laughs) He wanted some black chicks. I said 'not me man. You're not gonna get me hurt.' (laughs) We had a place called Small's Paradise in Harlem. That's where we all hung out mostly, with King Curtis and all the rest of 'em. But, I didn't go out with him that night. I met Bobby Darin in that era. He was just getting started also. Some of those guys I'm really sorry about it, that I had not stayed close to 'em. If I had stayed close to 'em, those guys at the time, maybe I would've gotten me some money somewhere, 'cause they had a lot of power after they made their records. If I had stayed friends with them, maybe I could've came to them and I would've gotten a little help from 'em. But, I didn't because of the era when all that came about, which was the racial era, and we couldn't get together right.

Q - Go back to your meeting with Paul McCartney. When you saw McCartney with his Beatle haircut, did it strike you as being funny? Or didn't it phase you at all?

A - No. It didn't phase me at all. They were just musicians, entertainers. I didn't pay them any attention, except I wished them well and sure enough, they came out very good.

Q - You tangled with the mob? Are you saying you tangled with the mafia?

A - Well, let me put it this way. I went to Vegas with The Robins. I think we were at Caesar's Palace. We couldn't go inside, with dressing rooms. Billy Ward and The Dominoes were dressing in a trailer outside the place. Of course, we had to got across the track to a motel where a Chinaman ran this casino for Blacks. That's where I had to stay most of the time. We had to go all the way down there, seven miles I think, to get dressed. We did 2 or 3 shows a day. I got tired of running back and forth to do these shows for this big place. I told the guys, 'I'm going around to the front and see if we can get rooms.' I'm from Texas. I didn't know any better. My mama told me 'when you want something, ask for it.' So they said 'Carl, you can't do that.' I said 'I don't give a shit who runs it! I'm gonna talk to 'em.' When I got around there, there was a guy with a big hat on. In that era, everybody wore hats. I walked up to him and said 'Sir, are you affiliated?' He said 'yeah'. I said 'I work for you. I'm one of The Robins.' Not the Coasters. He said 'Oh yeah. Yes?' I said 'I have to go back and forth a lot to get dressed and came back to work for you in the lounge a lot.' We worked the lounge a lot then. I said 'I'm tired of running back and forth.' I said 'any way you can give us a room?' I said 'I didn't come here to mess your women, I came here to collect the money you owe me and I'm getting my butt out of here.' He said 'Wait a minute kid.' He went in and got four more bouncers. He said 'tell them what you told me.' I ran it down the same way. They looked at me and looked at each other and one by one came back to me and looked at me. He looked at me, pointed his finger in my face and said 'Got it kid.' And, he let me have this room in that big hotel next to where all the white girls dress. We couldn't go in there and hang out though. We had a room. I think Sammy Davis could go upstairs with Sinatra but, I couldn't go in there. (laughs) So, that was one thing in my crown that I got done. Integration in my era and I'm the one who did it. Only for us, nobody else did it.

Q - Would you know the names of any of the mobsters you spoke to?

A - I wouldn't have known. I was an old Texas boy that just got to California. I didn't know anything about who was who. The mob didn't fight me then. I knew nothing about them. The Frontier...there were a lot of mobsters there, but I never learned who they were. I really did not know. I wish I had known it, but I was my 20s, only looking for women and nothing else. (laughs) Then, as things moved, I began to learn a lot of things about it.

Q - You also carried a gun on stage. What was the purpose of that? Did you fear for your life?

A - I never carried a gun on stage. I know what it's about. We used to do shows with cap pistols. (laughs) No, it was a starter pistol that shot 38 blanks. One of the guys went up to do the show. I was playing in the second part and one of the guys tried to run and I shot him in the butt. The thing was very loud and people in The Apollo heard the shot. It was packed in there. So Ronnie Bright, who was with me then, fell backwards on the stage like he died...and it was just an act. Someone got up from their seat and was dragging Ronnie off the stage. Ronnie turned around and said 'Turn me loose, man!' Man, we thought you were dead. We were 'get somebody from the funeral home for you.' I said 'no man, this is an act. Can't you see?'

Q - Am I to understand that you've written your autobiography?

A - We're waiting for the publishers to get through and then it'll be out soon.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

* The Coasters put 10 songs on the Billboard Top 40 Pop chart, including 6 in the Top 10.
"Searchin" (#3), "Young Blood" (#8), "Yakety Yak" (#1), "Charlie Brown" (#2), "Along Came Jones" (#9), "Poison Ivy" (#7)

The Coasters