Among the fringe benefits of hanging out in Vancouver was a friend of Maggie’s who collected old 45s and made me a tape of oddities and rarities, including LaVerne Baker’s “Saved,” the Court Jesters’ “Roaches,” and the Coasters doing “Run Red Run” and “What About Us?”
Produced and supplied with songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the Coasters were far more political than most fans or historians recall. I’ve already written about “Framed” and “Riot in Cell Block #9,” but this 1959 pairing was their most explicit protest single to hit the charts. “What About Us?” was a thinly disguised plaint for social justice, couched in typically humorous terms:
He goes to eat at the Ritz — big steaks! (That’s the breaks.)
We eat hominy grits, from a bag. (What a drag…)
What about us? What about us?
Don’t want to cause no fuss, but what about us?
“Run, Red, Run” was an urban update of the African tradition of animal trickster tales, and more directly a hip reworking of the “Signifying Monkey” toasts. (For more on that, check out a terrific book, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, by Bruce Jackson.) On the surface it’s about a monkey who turns the tables on the man who has taught him to drink beer and play poker — but it didn’t take much imagination to see the monkey as a stand-in for Africans, Red for white America, and the story for the changes that were happening in those years, from the southern marches to the ghetto riots and the rise of black power. As Leiber later said, “Once the monkey knows how to play, he knows how to understand other things. And once he understands that he’s being cheated and exploited, he becomes revolutionary.”
In that context, it is ironic that the song appeared on an album that, as was typical at that time, masked the race of the artists with pictures of white people. It’s possible that this was unintentional — in the sense that a white artist may have drawn white people without even considering other options — but that is no less noteworthy, and it’s equally possible that the choice was made with full intent. Berry Gordy, for one, was open about avoiding showing pictures of his groups on Motown album covers in this period, to avoid alienating white buyers — or, perhaps, their parents.
All of which said, it’s a great song, and in 1984 I included it on my LP, Songster/Fingerpicker/Shirtmaker. The guitar part was loosely adapted from John Hammond’s arrangement for Mose Allison’s “Ask Me Nice,” though he made it significantly funkier.
Incidentally, listening back to the Coasters’ records, I seem to have added a touch from the B side: they sing that the monkey is going to go to town in Red’s “new brown suit,” and refer to the rich guy in “What About Us?” as having a car made of suede… I turned the suit into a brown suede suit, having once been impressed to see Tom Lehrer wearing a suede suit at a benefit concert.