Cornelius (Cornell) Gunter, lead tenor for the Coasters during the glory days of that Los Angeles-based doo-wop rock unit when they recorded such hits as “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown,” was shot to death while traveling through North Las Vegas, police said Tuesday.
Gunter, who worked regularly in the Nevada city leading an ensemble he called Cornell Gunter and the Coasters (as opposed to nearly a dozen other Coasters groups now touring the country), was found slumped over the steering wheel of his car Monday, Las Vegas Police Officer Darren Flatin said. Flatin said Gunter was in his 50s, but he did not know the singer’s exact age.
Gunter, who began with the Coasters in 1957, two years after the original group evolved from the L.A.-based Robins, was found about 11 a.m. at a street intersection with two gunshot wounds in his chest.
“It appears he was shot through the windshield and he was dead on the scene. We don’t have a motive at this time,” Police Lt. Gary Rainey said.
Witnesses said that Gunter’s car was parked at a North Las Vegas intersection and a thin black man was standing on the driver’s side, talking to him.
“They apparently got into a loud argument,” Rainey said. “People heard a couple of shots. Then the car took off, went about a block, then hit a block wall.”
Gunter and the Coasters were scheduled to perform at the Lady Luck Hotel this weekend, said Janice Mazuroski, assistant director of advertising and public relations at the hotel.
Gunter replaced tenor Young Jessie with the vocal team that became known for its comedy and for bringing the expression “Why is everybody always picking on me?” into the pop parlance of the day. The phrase, sung by bass Will (Dub) Jones, was from the Coasters’ 1959 hit “Charlie Brown.”
Their first big hit had come two years earlier with “Searchin’,” backed by another success, “Young Blood.”
The Coasters--who took their name from their West Coast origins--were formed when the Robins split into two groups. The original Coasters ensemble included Billy Guy, Carl Gardner, Leon Hughes and Bobby Nunn. Jessie replaced Hughes in 1956, and Gunter then subbed for Jessie the following year.
With a flurry of other hits that included “Along Came Jones” and “Poison Ivy” in 1959, the Coasters were the country’s most popular black rock ‘n’ roll group at the end of the 1950s.
Among their other hits were “Framed,” “Idol With the Golden Head,” and “Shoppin’ for Clothes.” The group managed substantial album sales but generally appealed to singles buyers.
Gunter left the group in the early 1960s. The Coasters’ last major hit was “Love Potion Number 9.”
With varying personnel, Gunter continued to keep the group in concert through the 1980s.
Various other Coasters--some original and some not--have also headed separate groups in recent years, all billing themselves as Coasters.
In 1980, another member of one of those groups, Nathaniel (Buster) Wilson, was murdered in what a Las Vegas jury adjudged was a fraud coverup.
Gunter was a Los Angeles native who had lived in Nevada most recently. In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.