“If You Wanna Be Happy” is based on the song “Ugly Woman” by the Trinidadian calypsonian Roaring Lion recorded in 1934. It hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on May 18, 1963, as well as the R&B singles chart. It was issued on Guida’s S.P.Q.R. label and distributed by London Records, and in the United Kingdom on EMI’s Stateside label.
The original single lists a running time of 2:14; some later releases are slightly longer due to a longer fade-out. The song was banned on many radio stations, due to the use of the words “Ugly Girl/ Woman.” Towards the end of the song, a brief dialogue takes place between Soul and a backup singer, based on Bo Diddley’s song “Say Man”: “Say Man!!”/ “Hey baby”/ “I saw your wife the other day.”/ “Yeah??”/ “Yeah, and she’s ugly-y-y-y-y!!!”/ “Yeah, she’s ugly, but she sure can cook, baby”./ “Yeah, alright.”/ Soul’s counterpoint melody in a falsetto is heard as the song fades out.
The Coasters are an American rhythm and blues/rock and roll vocal group who had a string of hits in the late 1950s. Beginning with “Searchin'” and “Young Blood”, their most memorable songs were written by the songwriting and producing team of Leiber and Stoller. Although the Coasters originated outside of mainstream doo-wop, their records were so frequently imitated that they became an important part of the doo-wop legacy through the 1960s.
The Coasters were formed in October 1955 as a spin-off of the Robins, a Los Angeles-based rhythm and blues group that included Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn. The original Coasters were Carl Gardner, Billy Guy, Bobby Nunn, Leon Hughes (who was replaced by Young Jessie on a couple of their early Los Angeles recordings), and guitarist Adolph Jacobs. Jacobs left the group in 1959.
The songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had started Spark Records, and in 1955 produced “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” for the Robins (their 5th single with Leiber-Stoller). The record was popular enough for Atlantic Records to offer Leiber and Stoller an independent production contract to produce the Robins for the Atlantic label. Only two of the Robins—Gardner and Nunn—were willing to make the move to Atlantic, recording their first songs in the same studio as the Robins had done (Master Recorders). In late 1957, the group moved to New York and replaced Nunn and Hughes with Cornell Gunter and Will “Dub” Jones. The new quartet was from then on stationed in New York (although all had Los Angeles roots).
The Coasters’ association with Leiber and Stoller was an immediate success. Together they created a string of good-humored “storytelling” hits that are some of the most entertaining from the original era of rock and roll. According to Leiber and Stoller, getting the humor to come through on the records often required more recording “takes” than for a typical musical number.
Their first single, “Down in Mexico”, was an R&B hit in 1956 and appears (in a re-recording from 1970—still with Gardner singing the lead) on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. The following year, the Coasters crossed over to the pop chart in a big way with the double-sided “Young Blood”/”Searchin'”. “Searchin'” was the group’s first U.S. Top 10 hit, and topped the R&B chart for 13 weeks, becoming the biggest R&B single of 1957 (all were recorded in Los Angeles).
“Yakety Yak” (recorded in New York), featuring King Curtis on tenor saxophone, included the famous lineup of Gardner, Guy, Jones, and Gunter, became the act’s only national #1 single, and also topped the R&B chart. The next single, “Charlie Brown“, reached #2 on both charts. It was followed by “Along Came Jones”, “Poison Ivy” (#1 for a month on the R&B chart), and “Little Egypt (Ying-Yang)”.
Changing popular tastes and a couple of line-up changes contributed to a lack of hits in the 1960s. During this time, Billy Guy was also working on solo projects, so New York singer Vernon Harrell was brought in to replace him for stage performances. Later members included Earl “Speedo” Carroll (lead of the Cadillacs), Ronnie Bright (the bass voice on Johnny Cymbal’s “Mr. Bass Man”), Jimmy Norman, and guitarist Thomas “Curley” Palmer. The Coasters signed with Columbia Records’ Date label in 1966, reuniting with Leiber and Stoller (who had parted ways with Atlantic Records in 1963), but were never able to regain their former fame. In 1971, the Coasters had a minor chart entry with “Love Potion No. 9” a song that Leiber and Stoller had written for the Coasters but instead gave to the Clovers in 1959. In Britain, a 1994 Volkswagen TV advertisement used the group’s “Sorry But I’m Gonna Have To Pass” track, which led to a minor chart placement in that country.
In 1987, the Coasters became the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, crediting the members of the 1958-era configuration. The Coasters also joined the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999.
Several groups used the name in the 1970s, touring throughout the country, though Carl Gardner, one of the original Coasters, held the legal rights to it. Gardner continued to tour with the Coasters and made many attempts to stop bogus groups with no connection to the original group using the name. In late 2005, Carl’s son Carl Gardner, Jr. took over as lead with the group when his father retired. The Coasters’ lineup then consisted of Carl Gardner, Jr., J.W. Lance, Primo Candelara, and Eddie Whitfield. Carl, Jr. has since split with this group and has started his own group with Curley Palmer.
Leon Hughes is the only surviving member of the original Coasters. Some of the former members suffered tragic ends. Saxophonist and “fifth Coaster” King Curtis was stabbed to death by two junkies outside his apartment building in 1971. Cornelius Gunter was shot to death while sitting in a Las Vegas parking garage in 1990. Nate Wilson, a member of one of Gunter’s offshoot Coasters groups, was shot and his body dismembered in 1980. Former manager Patrick Cavanaugh was convicted of the murder after Wilson threatened to notify authorities of Cavanaugh’s intent to buy furniture with stolen checks. While Cavanaugh was convicted of the murder and given the death sentence in 1984, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He died at 60 in 2006, in Nevada’s Ely State Prison.
The Coasters continue to appear regularly on “oldies” shows and PBS specials as old favorites and are available for bookings.
The Hits list below is from Joel Whitburn’s Top R&B Singles and from the Pop positions published in Bill Millar’s book “The Coasters” (1975).
In late June, 2007 Carl Gardner’s autobiography “Carl Gardner: Yakety Yak I Fought Back – My Life with The Coasters” was published at AuthorHouse. On August 28, 2007 the Coasters’ Leiber-Stoller-produced recordings for Date/King 1966-1972 was released on a Varèse Vintage (Varèse Sarabande) CD, titled “Down Home” (302 066 844 2) – and on December 12, 2007 the complete Atco recordings 1954-1966 were released on a Rhino Handmade four-CD set, titled “There’s A Riot Goin’ On: The Coasters on Atco” (Rhino RHM2 7740).