When penning a story about Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, it’s best to go straight to the muse.
And sometimes, the muse doesn’t give you any other choice.
On Sunday, rhythm and blues legends The Coasters will come to Harmony Hall, bringing with them iconic hits like “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.”
Veta Gardner (nee Ryfkogl) has managed the band since 1986, shortly after meeting and falling hard for founder and longtime frontman Carl Gardner.
The two were married in 1987, and for the next 24 years, Veta says, continued to make beautiful music together.
Then, on June 12 of this year, Carl Gardner, the unmistakable voice of The Coasters, died due to congestive heart failure and vascular dementia at age 83.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been two months already,” Veta sighs.
In his stead, Carl bequeathed the entirety of his legacy to his wife, leaving her the solitary owner and manager of The Coasters, and charging her with the band’s inimitable history.
It’s a responsibility Veta, 79, does not take lightly. Even the band’s current lineup J.W. Lance, Primo Candelara and Eddie Whitfield are not as expertly versed on Coasters-lore, she says.
Veta, on the other hand, is a veritable font of information, rattling off a detailed chronology within a matter of breaths, from Carl Gardner’s beginnings with rock band The Robins, to his fateful union with famed songwriting team and longtime collaborators Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, to the 1955 formation of the original lineup Gardner, Bobby Nunn, Billy Guy and Leon Hughes and, later, the addition of Cornell Gunter and Will “Dub” Jones.
“I’m like an encyclopedia,” she laughs.
But it was Carl, she explains, who was the heart and soul of The Coasters. And there are many things fans never knew about the band’s fearless leader. Before his break, he used to shine shoes to make ends meet, he played the drums and he had never, ever intended to become a pioneer of rock ’n’ roll.
“He wanted to sing songs like ‘Mona Lisa,’” she says. “But, he went with what he had.”
What he had was a powerful singing voice and a solid partnership with Leiber and Stoller, whose seriocomic styles resulted in a number of hits for the band at one time crowned the clown princes of rock.
Veta, originally of Kingston, Jamaica, moved to the U.S. in 1963. Little did she know, she would meet the man of her dreams some 22 years later.
“I met Carl in 1985,” she recalls. “We lived in the same building, and moved from being friends to lovers to husband and wife.”
Their first date, she says, was the stuff of which love songs are made.
“I had been working for a financing company in New York. I didn’t know who he was. I just knew occasionally I’d see him go and come back with a suitcase. We initially didn’t talk much. Maybe just a ‘hi’ here and there. ... He had invited me to Dick Clark’s opening of the Hard Rock Cafe in Manhattan. I remember it was a beautiful spring day, and he looked so handsome in that three-piece suit.”
On their jaunt to 57th street, Carl stopped to talk with every panhandler who approached, Veta recalls, offering each of them money.
“One man stopped and said, ‘My gosh, Carl Gardner! Whatever happened to you? I haven’t seen you in ages,’” she recalls. “I asked him how they knew each other, and Carl said, ‘You see that guy, there? He was one of the best trumpet players in New York City, and I could be in the same position.’”
When pressed for more information, Carl finally disclosed his identity.
“He told me he was a bandleader. I said, ‘Right,’” she laughs. “When we finally arrived at the restaurant, there were two lines one for guests and another for entertainers, which Carl [joined.] I said, ‘You’re in the wrong line.’”
She quickly learned otherwise.
“Dick Clark approached us and said to Carl, ‘You always look like you’re stepping out of Vogue magazine.’ And it was true. Carl always was a sharp dresser.”
Veta assumed management responsibilities for The Coasters in 1986, having convinced Carl to part ways with the band’s former promoter.
“He wasn’t getting them any jobs,” recalls Veta. “I said, ‘He’s not doing anything for you. You should fire him.’ I decided I’d help him. And one thing led to another.”
Three years after they were wed, the couple relocated to Florida.
“We were both getting up in age, and were tired of the cold winters,” she says. “We moved to Port Saint Lucie and fell in love with it.”
In 1993, Carl, a longtime smoker, was told he had throat cancer, but even then, remained the consummate entertainer.
“Six months later, he was back on stage,” says Veta.
But shortly after the construction of a new home in 2004, Carl had a stroke. “That’s when he decided he’d retire,” Veta says. “He still played, but his voice wasn’t as strong as it used to be.”
Veta thinks her husband missed the life.
“I asked him that one time. He said, ‘Hell, no.’ But I didn’t believe him,” she says. “Carl was a very private person. Even with me, and we were 24/7. Carl would start saying something, and I could finish his sentence. But even though he denied it, I could tell. I’d see him watching an entertainer on TV, and I could see that faraway look in his eye.”
In later years, however, Carl’s health swiftly declined, she says. He had begun to forget little things, his attitude changing. He was ultimately diagnosed with dementia, and in June 2010, an emergency room visit led to doctors advising Veta to make provisions for her husband’s funeral.
“I thought, ‘I don’t give up that easy,’” she says. “I decided I would take him home. I nursed him and nursed him and nursed him. But by the latter part of last year, he wasn’t himself anymore. Carl had weighed 220 pounds ... and he had dropped to 123. ... Shortly before he passed he said, ‘Veta, I’m tired. I’m so tired.’ I knew he was ready. I spent his last moments with him.”
Fans of The Coasters may have fond memories of seeing the band in concert, or hearing the woeful baritone hook of “Charlie Brown” (“Why is everybody always picking on me?”) for the very first time. But Veta has her own favorite memory of her husband.
“We had our little games. This is very personal, but it’s cute. We used to lie in bed and take the sheets and throw them up in the air and let them fall on us, and we’d just crack up,” she says. “We were like two kids together.”
Following Carl’s retirement in 2005, his son from a previous marriage, Carl Jr., replaced his father as lead vocalist in the band, but has since left to pursue other interests, Veta says. The current lineup, however, continues to tour, keeping alive the legacy and the lyrics of The Coasters.
“Carl was a very humble man,” says Veta. “People would come up to him and congratulate him on leading the first vocal group ever inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and do you know what he’d say? ‘No big deal.’ Those were his famous words: ‘No big deal.’”
“Carl never put anybody down and he never had any attitude,” says Veta. “He would say, ‘God gave me a gift, why should I be cocky?’”
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Harmony Hall, 10701 Livingston Road, Fort Washington
For information: http://arts.pgparks.com/Our_Facilities/Harmony_Hall_Regional_Center.htm