Though my record-buying at Dayton’s focused on prewar blues, there were a handful of notable exceptions – most significantly, a trio of reissue albums on the Atlantic label featuring the Drifters, the Clovers, and – far and away most memorably – the Coasters. Aside from Chuck Berry and Ray Charles, I don’t think any other R&B hitmakers in the 1950s recorded a body of work I love as much as the Coasters’. Unlike Berry and Charles, though, the Coasters were a collaborative project, and it is not easy to define them or what made them unique.
On the one hand, there were the actor/singers who brought the songs to life. As with many groups of that period, they were not completely consistent from record to record, the personnel sometimes changing and occasional ringers taking the lead (not a common occurrence, but “Riot in Cell Block Number Nine” featured Richard Berry, the composer of “Louie, Louie,” who appeared on no other group track and was recorded when they were still based in Los Angeles — whence “The Coasters,” for West Coast — and were called the Robins).
On the other hand, there were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote the songs and produced the records. Leiber and Stoller were expert, versatile hitmakers, and did a lot of other stuff as well, but the Coasters records are their definitive artistic statement, the perfect match of playwrights and actors, composers and musicians, producers and artists.
The story of the Coasters and Leiber and Stoller has been told elsewhere, and what I want to emphasize here is just how much I loved that first LP collection and how much it affected my understanding of musical performance, then and forever. It was funny, and smart, and soulful, and musically challenging, and danceable, and collaborative, and individual – it was pure entertainment that was also rigorous and edgy, enjoyable and admirable on any level you might choose.
I can sing all but a couple of songs on that record, as well as lots of other Coasters songs I heard later, but I don’t perform most of them because I can’t do them even well enough to amuse myself. This and its prequel, “Framed,” are exceptions because they are such neatly crafted story-songs, and don’t demand a group treatment the way “Youngblood,” or “Along Came Jones” do. They also appealed to me because at that point I was immersing myself in blues, and they solved a problem: Dave Van Ronk could sing “Hoochie Coochie Man” convincingly and I couldn’t, but I liked that musical framework, and this song provided a combination of the setting Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters created for that song with a lyric that didn’t demand the singer be believable as its protagonist – everyone understood that I was presenting the story of a prison break, not pretending I might lead one.
Actually… to be absolutely honest, that is a later rationalization: at the time I also sang “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and it took a while for me to figure out why it didn’t work, while this one and “Framed” did. In which context, two relevant anecdotes:
The first is Leiber and Stoller’s recollection that the songs they wrote for Elvis were big hits and made them lots of money, but were lightweight fluff compared to what they’d done with the Coasters, their particular example being “Jailhouse Rock.” They apparently wrote all the songs for that movie soundtrack in one afternoon, and Leiber dismissed the title song as Hollywood silliness, saying: “We used to write things like ‘Riot in Cell Block Number Nine’.” What he meant was that they used to write songs that were funny but also felt real, and in an online biography of the Robins, Marv Goldberg quotes Terrell Leonard, one of the group members, recalling that Leiber and Stoller wrote the song with bass singer Bobby Nunn in mind, but he refused to sing it, apparently considering it low class. “We didn’t understand our heritage,” Terrell recalled. “These two white songwriters knew our culture better than we did. Bobby wouldn’t do it so they brought Richard Berry in.”
The second anecdote, to balance that one, is Van Ronk’s story of arriving late at a blues festival, with no idea who else was on the bill, rushing onstage, and ending his set with a shouting, macho version of “Hoochie Coochie Man,” then coming off and finding Muddy Waters had been sitting and listening to him. Dave was embarrassed, but Muddy, as always, was polite and helpful: “That was very nice, son,” he said, encouragingly. “But you know, that’s supposed to be a funny song.”