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Subject: Billy Guy, 66, Baritone Voice of the Coasters

Las Vegas
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Date Posted: November 14, 2002 2:06:34 EDT

Billy Guy, an original member of the Coasters vocal quartet who stood out for the raw quality of his baritone voice and sense of comedy on 50's hits like "Searchin'," died on Tuesday in his apartment in Las Vegas. He was 66.

The cause was cardiovascular disease, said Carl Gardner, the only surviving member of the original Coasters.

The Coasters were among the first black singing groups to be considered truly a rock 'n' roll act, not rhythm-and-blues. They are best known for their string of narrative comic songs like "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown," written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. When the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inducted its first members, in 1987, the Coasters were included.

The group's doo-wop-inspired sound was characterized by the low tones of its bass, Bobby Nunn, and what MusicHound's Essential Album Guide for rock calls Mr. Gardner's "wolf-in-sheep's-clothing tenor."

But it was Mr. Guy who was the exuberant lead singer on the 1957 song "Searchin'," which featured an "alley" piano style essentially two bass notes played alternately on every second beat and suitably rough vocal support from the rest of the group. Mr. Guy declares his determination to find his girl, even if it calls for the detective talents of Charlie Chan, Sam Spade and Bulldog Drummond not to mention the Canadian Mounties.

"This was one of the first songs to introduce specific figures from American culture into its lyrics," Charlie Gillett wrote in "The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll" (Pantheon, 1984).

Mr. Guy said in an interview with The Milwaukee Journal-Standard in 1998, "We had more fun than any other group."

Mr. Guy was born in Itasca, Tex., on June 20, 1936. His birth certificate recorded that his parents were Frank Phillips and Sewille Thompson, but did not show his name, according to Vita Gardner, Carl Gardner's wife. By the time he found his way to Southern California, just as Mr. Gardner was looking for a baritone for a new group, his name was Billy Guy.

Mr. Gardner and Mr. Nunn had been members of the rhythm-and-blues group the Robins, which recorded the Leiber and Stoller hits "Riot in Cell Block No. 9," "Framed" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe."

But Mr. Leiber and Mr. Stoller's small record company was having trouble distributing their successful records and sold the company, Spark Records, to Atlantic. As part of the deal, they acquired the rights to the Robins, but the Robins objected to the deal.

Mr. Gardner and Mr. Nunn left the Robins to form a new group in 1955. Mr. Gardner said he needed to a new voice fast, and found Mr. Guy singing in a duo called Bip and Bop. Leon Hughes was also recruited to become a Coaster, a name chosen to refer to the West Coast.

The Coasters' first song was "Down in Mexico," which was similar to "Smokey Joe's Cafe." Neither it nor their next song, "One Kiss Led to Another," was particularly successful. Then in 1957, they recorded "Searchin' " and "Young Blood" on the same record, and both were hits.

Then came extensive tours and appearances on a wide range of network television shows, including "The Ed Sullivan Show" and Dick Clark's "American Bandstand." Through the 1950's, they kept turning out hits, almost all written by Leiber and Stoller, including "Poison Ivy," "Framed," "I'm a Hog for You" and "That is Rock and Roll."

Mr. Guy, who wrote several songs himself, including the group's hits "Wake Me Shake Me" and "Wild One," said the wackier songs like "Yakety Yak" could be done only by a special mix of voices like the Coasters.'

"It was hard to find voices," he told the Milwaukee newspaper. "The songs were really based on country-western. Remember Homer and Jethro? Everyone had to be a specialist. It was black voices singing in the middle of rhythm-and-blues and country-western."

His survivors include his companion, Vanessa Van Klyde; a sister; a brother; a son; and a daughter.

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