The year 1960 started off an era where pop musicians began to speak out on social issues. Before the decade’s end, artists felt compelled to include at least one “protest song” per album, at least if they wanted to be thought of as “serious” artists. But the first pop music salvo that specifically attacked the white power structure in the U.S. was not a protest song at all. It was a novelty tune about a gambling monkey, penned by a team of Jewish songwriters and performed by a black doo-wop group known more for songs about comic book characters than racial politics.
The 1959 song, “Run Red Run”, by the Coasters—a group that was already famous for a string of pile-in-the-jalopy novelty hits—is a fierce indictment of racism, a brilliant detournement of a nasty stereotype and a provocative taunting of fearful whites, nervous over the reckoning to come. The genius of the song, written by consummate hitmakers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, was that it used a ridiculous comic parable to convey an insurrectionist message. It works as a joke, it works as a call to arms, and most importantly, it works as a pop song.
“Red went and bought himself a monkey. Got it from a pawnshop broker. Taught that monkey how to guzzle beer, and he taught him how to play stud poker.”
This first line is classic Lieber/Stoller, whose songs for the Coasters often featured wonderfully bizarre settings and characters. Sharing the 1950s fascination with all things “exotic”, Lieber and Stoller served up scandalous and weird story-songs like “Idol with a Golden Head” alongside summertime fun like “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety Yak”. While much of what they wrote about was just silly, their early work included songs like “Framed” and “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” which, in their own jokey way, spoke to the unfairness of the American justice system.
It was a system that was under strain in the late ‘50s, as the civil rights movement was just gaining the momentum it needed to push back against the segregation and oppression directed toward Blacks of the day. It’s pretty well acknowledged that the pop music of the 1950s and ‘60s had a buoyant effect on America’s civil rights movement, first by granting African Americans access to the cultural mainstream, and secondly by celebrating the social and economic freedoms brought on by the end of World War II. While exploration of those freedoms often amounted to little more than goofy teenage fantasies (like when Eddie Cochrane beseeched the U.N. to find a cure for his Summertime Blues), they still spoke to an awakening desire for new liberties that suddenly seemed possible in American life. In Black America, that awakening was about much more than fast cars and itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-yellow-polka-dot bikinis, even if sometimes Black pop performers didn’t, or simply couldn’t, explicitly say so.
Take Chuck Berry, one of the few pop stars of the 1950s who actually wrote his own songs. While he sometimes dropped hints about the racism he faced (“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” is either a fist pump for Black Pride or a celebration of sexual prowess, it’s hard to tell which), he mostly told white teens what they wanted to hear. Berry’s classic “School Days” first blared from jukeboxes in 1957, lodging its grievances of too much “history and practical math” and how “the guy behind you won’t leave you alone.” Serious complaints to be sure, but they start to look downright petty when you consider that 1957 was the same year President Eisenhower had to send 1,000 troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect nine Black high school students from being torn to pieces by segregationist lynch mobs.
Set in that context, it seems even more astounding that “Run Red Run” was able to sneak into the top 40. The Coasters’ reputation as a “funny” band must have distracted people, because even the shallowest analysis of Lieber and Stoller’s lyrics point to Red playing the part of the (White) corrupt oppressor and the monkey being the (Black) underdog hero. It should be noted here that the racist comparison of Blacks to monkeys is one of the main ideas being attacked in the song—a long-discredited stereotype that Lieber and Stoller use to bludgeon listeners who might actually still think that way.
After Red corrupts the monkey with drinking and card games, the song sets up the conflict:
“Last night they were gambling in the kitchen. Monkey, he was taking a beating. Monkey said, ‘Red, I’m gonna shoot you dead because I know darn well you been cheating…’”
Lest anyone think I’m reading too much into a jokey Coasters song, here’s what Jerry Leiber says about his intentions, as quoted in Peter Buckley’s Rough Guide to Rock: “Once the monkey knows how to play [poker], he knows how to understand other things. And once he understands that he’s being cheated and exploited, he becomes revolutionary.”
Was it Leiber/Stoller’s place to try and speak for Blacks in this way? I don’t know. But if there’s any doubt as to whether their Black colleagues approved, the Coasters’ recorded performance of the song settles the matter. Riding on a propulsive train beat, lead singer Carl Gardner* shimmies through the song with a giddy smirk on his lips, hitting a wicked stride for the first chorus of “Run, Red, Run ‘cuz he’s got your gun and he’s aiming it at your head!” and sending it home with a jeering “Boogity boogity boogity!”
Not only does Gardner seem keenly aware of the irony of the song, he appears to revel in it, delivering lines like “Monkey said, ‘Red, you made a man out of me, now I’m gonna make a monkey out of you!’” with a sublime and vengeful satisfaction.
The song’s climax is set in a downtown parking lot, where the monkey holds Red at gunpoint. “Give me your car keys and give me your watch, give them to me or I’ll shoot,” croons Gardner. “I’m gonna put on your brand new Stetson hat and go to town in your new brown suit.”
Taken seriously, “Run Red Run” is about overcoming injustice by any means necessary. The fact that it was meant to be taken seriously is evidenced by the bittersweet flipside of the single, “What About Us?”, a soulful appeal to the conscience of white America: “He eats steaks at the Ritz… Big steaks, that’s the breaks. We eat hominy grits from a bag. What a drag.”
“Run Red Run” b/w “What About Us?” was released on the ATCO label in 1959, three years before Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and eight years before James Brown’s “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud”. That puts the most unlikely group in the world, the Coasters, at the absolute forefront of the modern Civil Rights movement within American popular music.
* Carl Gardner, founding member and lead singer of the Coasters, died on June 12, 2011. He was 83.