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Obituaries

Billy Guy, 66; Baritone Was an Original Member of the Coasters

November 16, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Billy Guy, an original member of the Coasters, the Los Angeles-originated rhythm and blues-based comedy quartet that recorded "Charlie Brown," "Yakety Yak" and other hits of the 1950s and early '60s, has died. He was 66.

Guy, a baritone who memorably sang the lead on the group's 1957 hit "Searchin' " and was one of the quartet's main comic voices, died of cardiovascular disease Tuesday in his Las Vegas apartment.

Considered by some the preeminent vocal group of the early days of rock 'n' roll, the Coasters were formed in 1955 and produced by the legendary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Debuting with "Down in Mexico" in 1956, the Coasters recorded a string of Leiber and Stoller hits that, in addition to "Charlie Brown" and "Yakety Yak," included "Along Came Jones," "Poison Ivy," "I'm a Hog for You," "Young Blood" and "Little Egypt."

The Coasters, Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn wrote a few years ago, "made some of the most entertaining and imaginative records of the '50s -- marvelously funny and often satirical looks at the world, mostly framed through a restless teen perspective."

In 1987, the Coasters were voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"Billy was one of the main clowns in the group, a very bright guy, very talented," Stoller told The Times Thursday.

Stoller said he and Leiber "looked upon the Coasters as our own voice. We wrote the songs for them, and we shared a sense of humor."

Leiber would sometimes sing a line of a new song for Guy, "and Billy would take it from there with the same sense of humor, the same delivery, only better," Stoller said.

The Coasters would perform in theaters, Stoller recalled, "then they'd come back and show us how they performed [the songs] on stage, and we'd fall on the floor. Then we'd start teaching them the new songs, and they'd fall on the floor.

"It was the most fun of any of the artists we worked with."

The feeling was mutual from Guy's standpoint. "We had more fun than any group," he told the Milwaukee Journal in 1998.

Born in Itasca, Texas, in 1936, Guy was singing in a duo called Bip and Bop when he was recruited to become a member of the Coasters, whose name referred to the West Coast.

The Coasters evolved out of the Los Angeles-based R&B group the Robins. The group signed with Leiber and Stoller's Spark record label in 1954 and scored West Coast hits with the songwriting team's "Riot in Cell Block 9," "Framed" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe."

After Leiber and Stoller became independent producers for Atlantic Records, they tried to bring the Robins with them, but part of the group decided to stay with their manager.

Two Robins -- lead singer Carl Gardner and bass singer Bobby Nunn -- stuck with Leiber and Stoller and, teaming with Guy and tenor Leon Hughes, formed the Coasters.

The group, however, underwent various personnel changes over the next few years.

Nunn was soon replaced by Will "Dub" Jones and Hughes was replaced by Young Jessie, who was replaced by Cornell Gunther, who in turn was replaced by Earl "Speedo" Carroll.

Stoller recalled that one of the key sounds in the Coasters for quite a few records, including "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown," was a harmony duet by Gardner and Guy.

But on "Searchin'," Stoller said, "that was Billy all the way on the lead. And also on 'Along Came Jones,' the little part in the middle was Billy, who went, 'eh, eh, along came Jones....' And he also was the lead on 'Little Egypt.' "

Stoller likened the Coasters to a vaudeville group or a commedia dell'arte troupe.

"They each played a different role," he said. "Billy frequently played kind of the country bumpkin, like on 'Little Egypt,' where he's the rube who walks into the tent show, and on 'Searchin'' also. Carl was more like the straight man and, of course, the bass singers were always the father figure or the heavy. When Cornell was in the group, he'd do the female role if there was one.

"They all played a role, but Billy was definitely a master of comic timing."

In his later years, Guy led a group that billed itself as the Coasters -- as did Gardner and, at various times, many other former members -- thus provoking a series of legal disputes over who owned the rights to the group's name.

Guy reunited with other former Coasters members about a dozen years ago to perform at a party hosted by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in honor of Leiber and Stoller's long collaboration.

"That's the last time I think I saw him face to face," Stoller said, "and he was just as wonderful as ever."

Guy is survived by his companion, Vanessa Van Klyde; a sister; a brother; a son; and a daughter.

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