By Bobbie Katz
Photo courtesy of Red Mercure Productions. Early Clover is second make from the left.
In 1829, Raphael Riviera discovered Las Vegas on his trading party’s way to Los Angeles.
In 2014, various parties from Los Angeles and all over the world are re-discovering Las Vegas at the Riviera.
And “uncovering Vegas” is something that countless numbers of people have been looking to do. As the city has turned into a mass of nightclubs, high-priced DJs, and Cirque du Soleil and production shows, those looking for the foundation Vegas was built on – great entertainment with a personal touch – are finding it in the lounge of the Riviera casino hotel with two separate shows, “Forever Doo Wop” and “Forever Motown,” both performed by the same group. Composed of singers who were former members of renowned doo wop/rock ‘n’ roll groups or who sang backup for major artists, their bringing back the music of the doo wop era as well as the beloved songs of Motown is providing a sort of group therapy for audiences with a true Las Vegas mindset.
“A lady who has been coming here for 35 years said to me the other night, ‘I’ve finally found Vegas,’” remarks Early Clover, who has been a lead singer with the Cornell Gunter Coasters for 25 years. “The other three male members of the group are Jerome Jackson, who was a member of the Drifters and a Grammy-nominated singer; Terrence Forsythe, who performed with the Buck Ram Platters and was a substitute with the Glenn Leonard Temptations, and Willie Greene, who performed with the Lyle Lovett band. As for the women, Serena Henry sang, and still sings, backup for Smokey Robinson; Tonja Foster was with the Marvelettes, and Gwendolyn Forsythe was also with the Marvelettes.
“I believe that this music has sustained because it’s family-oriented and no one will be offended by any of the lyrics,” he continues. “The songs are greatly entertaining – they are about people’s lives; the words have actually been lived. This music has the intention of sharing experiences in a form that requires and gets people’s attention. It pertains to everyone in some way – ‘I Only Have Eyes For You,’ ‘Since I Fell For You,’ ‘My Girl,’ ‘Get a Job,’ etc. It was a time of innocence that has become forever etched in people’s hearts. Motown came about in an era of rebellion or confusion and kept people calm and reflected on them in a good way. It kept their spirits up. In my opinion, Motown led to the era society has become today.”
According to Clover, the songs performed in both shows have been chosen by the New York and L.A. producers that established the productions. Another name from that era, Misty Rowe of hit TV show Hee Haw fame, was brought in to do the choreography. And while the various members have performed together on other gigs, this is the first time they have performed as a cast. Clover notes that there is no drama and that they have very good communication and that they work hard every night to define the shows. He reveals that these are different kinds of productions than what he is used to working with the Coasters, these requiring changing attire as well as positions on stage since they sing the songs of various groups and share the leads. He explains that these shows also require different elements of performing.
Stating that he looks forward every night to performing in the productions, Clover reminisces about his early years in show business and how he came to be a lead singer with the Coasters. Born in the small country town of Wrightsville, Georgia, but raised on a farm in Dublin, Georgia, he was one of nine children of very poor parents. The family had no telephone, television, or access to a newspaper. They had one small radio that they shared and that Clover jokes he hogged.
“We were very rich in love,” he explains. “We worked the cotton fields and lived through the Ku Klux Klan. We had hand-me-down books in school. But the age of 7, I knew that I wanted to be a singer. I learned, one song on the guitar from my older brother, Willie, and, from that, I became a proficient guitarist. At the age of 16, I started my own band, the Middle Georgia Soul Drifters, which later went on to become the opening act for some of the hottest names in the south such as Betty Wright, Clarence Carter, Tyrone Davis, and Marvin Sease. It became the road band and backup for William Bell, Rufus Thomas, and Joe Simon, to name a few .I also eventually collaborated with James Brown in writing techniques of songs, having met him through Rufus Thomas
“I finished high school in Dublin and, at one point, decided to get out of Georgia. In 1988, I went to New York with the intention of competing in Apollo Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater and winning. That’s where I met stars like Cab Calloway and Ben Vereen, who like Rufus Thomas and James Brown became part of my life. I ended up being a seven-time winner at the Apollo, winning 1st place twice, 2nd place three times, and 3rd place in the "Top Dog of The Year" competition. I tied 3rd place in the "Super Dog of The Year" competition. I became an Apollo favorite, performing each Wednesday for pay. Then I answered an ad for a lead singer for the Coasters. I auditioned and was chosen from 62 people who tried out. That was in 1989.”
The Coasters are a doo-wop group that began in October 1955. The original members of the Coasters were Carl Gardner, Billy Guy, Bobby Nunn, and 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 Coasters' were formed out of the group The Robins, a Los Angeles based rhythm and blues group, which included Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn.
Leiber and Stoller had started Spark Records and, in 1955, they produced "Smokey Joe's Cafe" for the Robins (their 5th single with Leiber-Stoller). The record was popular enough that Atlantic Records offered 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). Clover explains that it was Jerry Lieber who gave the group the Coasters name because he planned on booking them from coast to coast.
“In 1989, there were the Billy Guy Coasters, headed by Billy Richardson, Guy’s nephew, and the Carl Gardner Coasters,” Clover relates. “I was with the latter group for five years. In 1990, Cornell Gunter was shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity while sitting in his automobile in Las Vegas. Through a source in the industry, I learned that I was related to Cornell. Later on, I met Gunter's sister Shirley, who did a background check on me and verified that we were relatives. She owned the estate rights and the two of us started Cornell Gunter’s Coasters. After that, the group traveled all over the country and out of the country. We played various hotels in Las Vegas. One of our contracts was at the Riviera.”
For many, the return of the doo wop and Motown live music at the Riviera means that Las Vegas is Lost Vegas no more.
This article appears by courtesy of Vegas Insider Daily.com.