The Coasters coasted to a halt at the corner of 34th and M Streets in Georgetown in an old, but clean, purple Plymouth that had died on them.
They say grim-faced for a minute.Then, almost simultameously, three of the group's members began joking, playfully trying to figure out a way to get some money for a new car.
Quickly, they left the smoking Plymouth, marched their piano player, who is blind, into the middle of the intersection on a typically traffic-busy Sunday, and said to him, "If you don't give us the deed to your ranch, your a - - will get smashed to bits."
And then they started to leave him. "But I ain't got no ranch," the piano player pleaded. And then the cars started coming "Hell, ya'll," the blind man begged. And then the motorists horns started blowing. And then . . . And then . . . And then . . .
And then along came Carl Gardner, leader of this wild and crazy crew of rock and rollers who started in 1954 and knocked off hit after hit: as "Charlie Brown" (he's a clown), "Yakety yak" (don't talk back) and "Searching" (gonna find her), not to mention "Along Came Jones."
"Cut it," Gardner said to the group. So they stood in the intersection pretending to have knives and saws. "Look," Gardner continued, "we have work . . ." The four men, including Gardiner dropped to one knee and extended their arms for a harmonized " . . . to dooo bee doo doo waaaa."
Motorists finally passed through the intersection, throwing sharp glances at the jokers. "Yeah, we're crazy," blurted Thomas Palmer. "We gave you a free show."
"Where'd youa'll escape from/" one motorist shouted.
In unison, "Cell Block No. 9," the title of another early hit. Then they marched back to their car, arm in arm with the piano player. End of routine.
"We just can't help ourrselves," said Gardner, who is 58 years old. "We've been at it too long."
Gardner started the Coasters 24 years ago, after working briefly with a group called the Robins. The inspiration for his group was The Clovers, who became famous with "Love Potion No. 9." The Coasters revived that song in 1971.
Through the years, numerous groups have tried to immitate the Coasters, and some former Coasters members attempted with little success to spin off their own singing comedy team. The present group is essentially the same Coasters that could be heard on radio stations across the country during the late '50s and early 1960s.
Besides the Gardner members of the Coasters are Earl Carroll, formerly of the Cardillacs, a group best known for the songs "Long Gone" and "Speed-O" Palmer, and Ronald Bright, known, as Mr. Bass Man, who sang bass on 'Mr. Bass Man." Writer Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller had heard about Gardner and the Robins, asked him to quit and start another group for which they wanted to write the songs.
Success was almost immediate, black music was just coming off the corners and out of AM radios all across teh eastern and midwestern United States during the mid-50s. The Coasters were the first black group to appear on the Dick Clark Spearmint Gum show.
Their music took a bold jab at social commentary that cut across racial and cultural lines. With "Charlie Brown" - "He walks in the classroom cool and slow, who calls the English teacher daddy-o? - the Coasters won the hearts of rebel high-schoolers (and teachers). But Charlie was an instant hit because he was an acceptable rebel - a gool-off clown. He was a hero and he came from everyday life.
"We were a clean act . . . we knew what the mores of the times were about. You know, with 'Yakety Yak, don't talk back.' That's what all the kids were hearitng from their parents. 'And when you finish doing that, bring in the dog and put out the cat. Yakety yak, don't talk back.'"
Their record zoomed to the top, and their novelty act, with catchy, off-beat humor, audience participation and skirts about black lifestyles, made them one of the most popular and most imitated groups around.
"We'd do into rehearsals at 10 a.m. and by 2 p.m. we'd have another hit," Gardner said. "That happened about every other day. I think somebody fell in some prison ivy one time and by the time Jerry and everybody had finished laughing about it we had this hit called 'Poison Ivy.' That's just how it went."
In their heyday, from 1954 to about 1967, the Coasters packed houses at the Howard Theater in Washington and the Apollo in New York. When Carl Gardner wanted to take a vacation, up-and-coming performers such as Lou Rawls, were eager to fill in for him. At one time, even Jimi Hendrix, the acid rock guitarist, was a Coaster.
Then Gardner recalls, around 1963, while the group was playing in a little rinky-dink joint in South Florida, a fellow by the name of Paul McCartney came up to him at the edge of the stage and said he really liked the kinds of things the Coasters were doing, that he - no, them, the Beatles - had learned from the Coasters, and that he, Gardner, might be able to recognize some of the Beatles stuff as his 'own some time in the future.
"I just kinda of thanked him, you know. We didn't really have that much respect for them. They weren't known so I just said 'What the hell. Thanks, kid.'"
Gardner propped his feet up on the table at the Cellar Door night club, where the group performed two night this week. He stroked his chin, and pulled his cap down over his eyes.
"Man, we were the pioneers: Down in Mexico; 'Young Blood,' and 'Yakety Yak.' Sold 2 million copies. Then the Beatles came along and destroyed it." He shook his head. He knows it sounds surprising. "Yep, they changed the sound. In fact, they took a lot of sounds - some of ours, Little Richard, the Drifters, - and threw in some sound of their own and changed the whole music business. We thought it was gonna be gravy forever - well, for a lot longer - and then the Beatles started a revolution that was bigger than our revolution."
If it hasn't been gravy forever, it's at least been a good living. According to Gardner, the group now grosses between $75,000 and $150,000 a year by performing mainly at small clubs and on college campuses. During the next three months, the Coasters will be performing between four and six days a week, Gardner said.
After the first show, the group went to their dressing room, a dingy place where the wallpaper serves as a telephone book for artists needing to relax. A Coasters' buff strolls in to congratulate them, and to get his copy of "Charlie Brown" autographed.
"I still love the work, not as much though. But we all got to eat," Gardner says. "Once that beat gets in you when you're on stage and the other fellows are really into it, it can be like the first time all over. But I'm getting kinda of bored. You know how it is when your eyes have seen it all, and you start seeing it over and over again.?"
He took a long swig of Cold Duck. "The Coasters are coasting now. Hell, the fact that we still moving at all is a wonder. Novelty acts never have been easy to pull off. My crowds are 90 percents white. Whites like nostalgia. Blacks like trends. The saying goes like this: 'If you're in a predominately black market, you're only as good as your last album.' So yeah, white folks are putting bread on our table."
He was interrupted by a simultaneous knock on the dressing room door and the ring of the pay phone on the wall.
"Mr. Gardner?" a man asked, stepping through the door. "You all are the best. The funniest. The greatest. My dad," the man continued, "owns this club in Boca and I was wondering if maybe you all could play . . . "
"Of course, I have to check my calender," Gardner said, rolling his eyes. "Hell, if the people still want the Coasters, I'll give 'em the Coasters."