It’s the summer of 1960. Songwriter Marv Rosenberg is 18, lead vocalist Jimmy Stephens is 20. As key members of the Los Angeles-based vocal group the Safaris, the two are riding high: The group’s ballad “Image of a Girl” sits at No. 6 on the Billboard chart. The future looks quite rosy.
At the same time, Leon Hughes, a founding member of the Coasters, is 30--well past the teen-rock prime. Already splintered from the original group and leading his own version of the Coasters, Hughes is witnessing the popularity of the group’s novelty-oriented songs like “Yakkety Yak” and “Charley Brown” (which were recorded after he had already left the group) blend into the Kennedy era, leaving his future in music seemingly tenuous.
Yet 1960 marked the nearly simultaneous beginning and end of the Safaris’ flirtation with pop stardom, a momentary way station on the path to other careers.
For Hughes, though, it was just another bump on a music-centered road that goes on to this day.
When both Hughes’ Coasters and the Safaris appear Saturday at the Greek Theatre as part of a show being billed as “Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll: West Coast Reunion,” these contrasts will be quite evident.
The Coasters were one of the most popular groups of L.A.'s bumper crop of vocal groups in the late ‘50s. Two years ago the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today as many as 11 different versions of the group are in existence, playing an oldies circuit ranging from Vegas to college reunions and weddings. Hughes’ edition of the group played 300 shows last year.
The Safaris, on the other hand, are barely a footnote in pop history.
What made it so easy for the Safaris to abandon music after a taste of success, while Hughes plugged on year after year?
To put it in the simplest terms, the Safaris had plenty of options open to them at that time outside of music. Rosenberg, who went on to get a doctorate in psychology, is a claims supervisor for the Kaiser Permanente medical organization, while Stephens went from a successful career in sales to become an award-winning portrait photographer.
For Hughes, though, music was the first, if not only, real option, and he’s stuck with it, leading his Coasters for 30 years through thick and thin.
Is it a matter as simple as black and white? After all, there’s a stereotype in music--just as in athletics--that the poor black kid without an education is lost when his music or sports days are over, while the white guy with the education goes on to the lucrative career of his choice.
That racial breakdown, of course, is a myth and generalization. “It doesn’t have to be the black guys (who can’t make a living outside of music),” said Jerry Sill, the manager of the Coasters during the group’s heyday and currently the president of Motown founder Berry Gordy’s Jobete Music company.
“I know a lot of white guys who bombed out. If they don’t have an education, they don’t have an option in any business. What would a guy like Bill Haley do? He died before he ever got out of it. Granted, it was a lot more difficult back then for black musicians to get other jobs.”
Still, even these particular performers say there’s some truth behind the myth.
Watching his young granddaughter ride her bike up to the doorstep of the house in Watts he’s owned since 1958, Hughes considered how things have changed since he was young.
“All the black guys fell in love with music itself,” he said. “Back then we felt that was the way for us.”
Added Ina Hughes, the singer’s wife for more than 40 years: “In the early days, that was the fast money--and big money if you were able to achieve.”
But Leon Hughes said, “Now they’re thinking differently. Some are going into computers. My granddaughter is 13 and she wants to be a doctor.”
Back when the Safaris were on the road as the only white group on a rock ‘n’ roll caravan, Marv Rosenberg observed what he considered a basic cultural difference between his attitude and that of some of the other singers.
“I remember talking to one of the guys in the Paradons (a black group),” he recalled. “I was so naive at the time, and I remember that he was really open in talking about how they didn’t have a home. The tours were home.”
Home and family were not lacking from Hughes’ young life, though, nor were they from Rosenberg’s and Stephens’. Ironically, though, it is that common element--perhaps the most prominent one they share other than the love for music--that led them on different paths.
Hughes was literally conceived on the road while his parents were members of the Wings Over Jordan gospel troupe. He began performing professionally with the group at age 7. So when he began putting together his own singing groups (inspired by the likes of the Ink Spots) in the mid-'40s, he got plenty of encouragement from his family.
Recalled Ina Hughes, “His parents never stopped him and I didn’t either, because I could see what he wanted.”
In the Rosenberg and Stephens households, though, it was a different story.
“You gotta produce, get a college education, have responsibility,” recalled Rosenberg of his parents’ attitude. “You didn’t become a rock ‘n’ roll bum.”
Even Stephens, whose father sometimes worked as a singing waiter, was encouraged to find a job outside music.
“My father was very conservative, educationally,” he recalled. “He was an insurance man, so he stressed business.”
Still, when the Safaris went from being box boys one week to singing on “American Bandstand” the next, the young Rosenberg and Stephens certainly thought it would last forever.
“I was so poor and all of a sudden I was driving a sports car,” recalled Rosenberg, then a recent graduate of Fairfax High School. (Phil Spector was a classmate.) “I thought this was it.”
“I had wanted to be a singing star,” said Stephens, who grew up in Van Nuys. “That’s what I saw in my future.”
But when faced with a choice between starting college and going on a 21-day concert tour (at little or no pay), Rosenberg--and two of the other four Safaris--chose college.
“I had been headed in a direction for all that (a conventional career),” said Rosenberg in his office. “Then here came a curve in the road, but it wasn’t stable, so it didn’t make sense.”
Stephens, who had dropped out of San Fernando Valley State College (Now Cal State Northridge) in order to join the Safaris, stuck with it a little longer, recruiting three other singers to go on that tour. But when he married soon thereafter, he too let the uncertain career in music fade.
“It was just too chancy,” Stephens, now 49, said. “The immediate rewards that had to be there weren’t. I wasn’t ready to make the sacrifice.”
Leon Hughes has sacrificed throughout his adult life to stay with music.
“I had to,” he said. “When the singing wasn’t paying me enough, I would go and get me a job.”
Most often over the years he has held an off-and-on job as a heavy equipment operator for the City of Long Beach. That job, he said, allowed him the freedom to leave for singing engagements when necessary and return when he needs to. He also acknowledges that it is a job which does not require a college education.
But Hughes insisted that he stays with music because he loves it, not because he had no other options.
“I could have been whatever I wanted,” he said, claiming that his family would have supported him to follow any career, as it did when music provided slim pickings.
And it is clear that once the Coasters’ name was established, music was clearly the most stable and profitable pursuit for Hughes.
Art Laboe, who as a deejay on L.A.'s KPOP-AM radio in the late ‘50s was the first West Coast radio personality to embrace rock ‘n’ roll, believes that music was Hughes’ best choice “probably from the standpoint of economics, since (the Coasters) had a whole string of hits.”
Hughes has also done fairly well for himself outside music. Besides his home, he owns the property next door on which sits a liquor store, and he is soon to open a fish market across the street. Using his success story in business to support his argument that he has stuck with music out of choice, not need, Hughes maintained that even if a steady career in another field had been open to him, he wouldn’t have taken it.
“Uh-uhh. No,” he said emphatically.
Ina Hughes agreed. “I don’t think he would have been good at (another career) anyway, ‘cause he’d still want to be singing.”
Added Hughes, “Music is like a cancer to Leon Hughes. It’s all-consuming.”
Regrets? Hughes has none, no matter how many times he has to sing those silly songs.
“Each time I sing one of those songs it gives me more,” he said. “Looking at the audience and the way they feel, you want to sing it over and over. That’s what makes an artist.”
That feeling is something that both Rosenberg and Stephens admit somewhat wistfully that they miss. Rosenberg, in particular, has worked hard to keep his passion for music part of his professional life, doing extensive studies on the psychological effects of pop music.
And now the group, which has reformed in the past only on a few occasions, is looking at new possibilities. Rosenberg has penned a new version of “Image of a Girl” with updated lyrics, and a new lineup of Rosenberg, Stephens, original member Sheldon Breier (who went on to a career as a criminal lawyer) and new recruits Buck Buchanan (a KRTH-AM deejay) and Alan Phalin (a freelance producer and actor) is hoping to drum up some steady work.
But still, both Rosenberg and Stephens retain the essence of their upbringing and admit they’d be hard-pressed to go back to music full time.
“Frankie Avalon and Fabian put together their show and they’re booked up for two years,” Rosenberg said. “That would be nice, but we can’t give up our careers.”
Said Stephens, “If I had it to do over again, I might sacrifice more to make something of it. I don’t know what I would do if the opportunity came again now. It would have to be pretty big for me to quit what I’m doing now.”
But the fact that he had that experience once is something Stephens holds onto.
“When people say, ‘Jim, get up and do a medley of your hit ,’ I say, ‘You can laugh at it, but I had one.’ That’s more than most.”