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Carl Gardner dies at 83; founding member of the Coasters

HealthEntertainmentEgyptDiseases and IllnessesPort St. Lucie (St. Lucie, Florida)

Carl Gardner, a founding member and lead singer of the Coasters, the renowned R&B vocal group whose memorably amusing hits included "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown" and "Poison Ivy," has died. He was 83.

Gardner, who had been battling congestive heart failure and Alzheimer's disease, died Sunday in hospice care in Port St. Lucie, Fla., said his wife, Veta.

The Texas-born Gardner was lead tenor vocalist for the Los Angeles-based R&B vocal group the Robins before he and fellow Robins member Bobby Nunn teamed with Billy Guy and Leon Hughes —along with guitarist Adolph Jacobs — to form the Coasters in 1955.

With the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller writing and producing their records for Atco Records, a division of Atlantic, the Coasters scored their first hit single with "Down in Mexico" in 1956, with Gardner doing the lead vocal.

The double-sided hit "Young Blood" and "Searchin'" followed — as did "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Poison Ivy," "Along Came Jones," "Little Egypt" and other hits.

The Coasters became known as the "Clown Princes of Rock 'n' Roll," for both their humorous storytelling songs and their comedic stage performances.

"They were sort of our comedy troupe, and we wrote songs for them and assigned different lines to different singers because they were, like, acting out little plays," Stoller told The Times on Monday.

"Carl was either the romantic lead or he was the straight man," Stoller said. "He was the barker at the beginning of 'Little Egypt' 'Step right up, folks' — and that was his persona in the group for those things."

The Coasters would choreograph the songs themselves for their stage shows, and when they'd perform their routines for him and Leiber in a rehearsal room, "we'd fall down laughing," recalled Stoller.

Gardner, he said, "had a beautiful voice" and always wanted to sing ballads.

"With all these hits, we finally agreed to do an album with the Coasters called 'One by One,' and Carl got a chance to do solo performances on songs like 'Moonlight in Vermont,' 'Satin Doll' and 'Moonglow.'

"It wasn't what the public wanted to hear from the Coasters, but he did have a lovely voice.... It's just one of those things: He became famous for the comedy stuff."

The Coasters underwent personnel changes over the years. But when it became the first vocal group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the inductees were what is considered the "classic lineup" of Gardner, Guy, Will "Dub" Jones and Cornell Gunter.

Born into a poor family in Tyler, Texas, on April 29, 1928, Gardner began singing at an early age.

"Singing was his passion," said Veta Gardner, who became the group's manager in the late '80s and wrote the 2007 as-told-to biography of her husband, "Yakety Yak, I Fought Back: My Life With the Coasters."

"Even as a young kid, he had a beautiful voice. They used to call him the town crier because he used to walk and sing. Everybody could hear him sing."

Gardner, who had a stint in the Army as a teenager, arrived in Los Angeles in the early '50s with a dream of becoming a big-band singer. "He didn't plan on being a group singer," said his wife.

In 1954, he took over as lead tenor for the Robins, which was then recording for Leiber and Stoller's small Spark Records label. As a member of the Robins, Gardner sang lead on the hit "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and also sang on "Riot in Cell Block #9."

Despite the many changes in the Coasters' personnel over the years, Veta Gardner said, "Carl kept the group going."

The Gardners also were involved in legal disputes with a number of other groups calling themselves the Coasters.

"I call them fakesters," said Veta Gardner, describing her husband's group as "the real deal, because he was singing with them all along."

In 1993, Gardner was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx.

"That devastated him, but it didn't affect his voice," his wife said. "After three months of treatment with radiation, he was back on the road performing again."

And when her husband suffered a stroke in 2004, she said, "that didn't stop him. He was back on stage again."

But in 2005, 50 years after the Coasters had formed, Gardner decided to retire.

"He told me, 'Veta, I don't have my voice anymore.' He was getting hoarse a lot; he couldn't take the high note anymore. He said, 'I want people to remember how I used to sing.' "

Besides his wife of 24 years, Gardner is survived by his daughter, Brenda; his sons, Carl Jr. and Ahilee; three stepsons, Ramon, Hanif and Wayne; his brother, Howard; his sister, Carol Bartlett; seven grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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