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Truth and Doo-Wop

Can’t tell a fake from the original? How one man’s campaign against musical impostors might help.

Let us consider two great experiences of Western culture. One is viewing “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” by the 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, which hangs in a museum in The Hague. The other is a performance of “Up on the Roof” by the 20th-century R&B group the Drifters. For that, you have many choices, including Bill Pinkney’s Original Drifters and Charlie Thomas’s Drifters, various “cover” bands (which do their own versions of classic hits), “tribute” bands (which mimic the original performances down to the white shoes) and a shadowy category of groups that perform under the original names and may benefit from the audience’s assumption that at least one of the elderly gentlemen on stage once crooned the selfsame lyrics on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Fate decreed there would be only one Vermeer, but many Drifters—and Coasters and Platters and other rock groups from the era before MTV. “How many?” asks Jon Bauman rhetorically.”As many as you can pay for. On New Year’s Eve, one in every city.” Bauman is better known as “Bowzer,” the T-shirted lunk from Sha Na Na (the band in “Grease”). Now 59, he runs his own oldies shows and heads the Truth in Music committee of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, crisscrossing the country at his own expense promoting laws to penalize bands who falsely advertise a connection to an earlier group. Nine states now have such laws—New Jersey was the most recent—and bills are awaiting signatures in seven more. Impostors are “a form of identity theft,” he says, “against artists whose music changed the world. I look on this as an extension of the civil-rights movement.” To the dwindling cadre of doo-wop pioneers who can still snap their fingers without wincing, Bauman is a hero.”Jon is a dedicated soul,” says Herb Reed of the first group to call itself the Platters.

More than a half-century later Reed still sings bass as part of a group descended from the original Platters by a genealogy only slightly less convoluted than the Plantagenets’. “Those impostor groups are destroying the market for me,” he says, competing for bookings by cutting their prices, so that in his late 70s he’s down to a mere 180 dates a year. But supporters of the Truth in Music bills are also positioning it as a consumer issue, appealing to a quirk of human nature that prizes authenticity above phenomenology. “Consumers are being confused,” says Maxine Porter, manager of Bill Pinkney’s Original Drifters. “There’s a history, a specific identity with a name, and all that is part of the consumer’s decision-making process. ” Economists struggle to understand this phenomenon.

“Even well-established art experts are at a loss to explain why a (perfect) copy is considered so much less valuable than the original,” Bruno S. Frey of the University of Zurich wrote in a 1999 paper. To return to Vermeer for a moment, most people will never see the original “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” but last week a new Vermeer museum opened in Delft containing only reproductions. Or if you’d like a hand-painted copy on stretched canvas to “impress your friends,” you can buy one online for as little as $155, compared with $100 million for the original. You could probably tell them apart, especially if you chose to supersize your copy—the original is just 16 by 18 inches, but you can have copies in sizes up to three feet by four feet. But would you be confident in your ability to know which was the Vermeer? And if not, then does it matter? For that matter, how many casual R&B fans could pick out an original member of the Coasters from a distance? (That’s a trick question; the last surviving original member, Carl Gardner, retired from touring recently after a stroke.) Early R&B groups were mostly faceless voices on the radio, in part because record companies weren’t eager to remind audiences that their faces were usually black. And yet, in doo-wop as in painting, an undeniable aura clings to the authentic, the genuine, the original. Which is why if you go to a concert by the faux Drifters or a performance by the Platters manqué, you will always see, says Bauman, one guy in his 70s there so that you, the discerning doo-wop consumer, can nudge your seatmate and say, “That’s the real one!”

Jerry Adler
June 4, 2007

Not so great pretenders

Originals support ‘Truth in Music’

CARSON CITY — Bowzer broke into song before a Senate panel on Thursday.

Mary Wilson, left, an original member of the Supremes, and Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, former leader of Sha Na Na, testify on Thursday.

Mary Wilson, left, an original member of the Supremes, and Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, former leader of Sha Na Na, testify on Thursday.

Jon Bauman, better known as the former leader of the oldies group Sha Na Na, testified in support of a bill that would make it a deceptive trade practice for musical groups with no original members to pass themselves off as the Coasters, Drifters, Platters or others.

“Get a job,” Bauman intoned, quoting the 1950s Silhouettes hit.

“For too many years, these impostor musical groups have been duping consumers out of their hard-earned entertainment dollars and cheating the pioneers of rock music out of their rightful legacy,” Bauman told the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.

Bauman was joined by Mary Wilson, an original member of the Supremes, and Sonny Turner, an original member of the Platters, who testified from Las Vegas, in supporting Senate Bill 53, dubbed the “Truth in Music” bill.

Sonny Turner, right, of the original Platters singing group, testifies from Las Vegas during a teleconference meeting Thursday of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor in Carson City.

Sonny Turner, right, of the original Platters singing group, testifies from Las Vegas during a teleconference meeting Thursday of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor in Carson City.

Sonny Turner, right, of the original Platters singing group, testifies from Las Vegas during a teleconference meeting Thursday of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor in Carson City.

Wilson told lawmakers that at least five groups are performing as the Supremes. Breaking into song, Wilson said she tells those groups: “Stop! In the name of love, before you break my heart.”

The bill is intended to protect both consumers, who may not know they are buying tickets to a fake group’s performance, and artists who only have their legacy as performers to rely on to make a living, Wilson said.

Turner continued the musical testimony in the hearing. “Only you, can pass this bill for us,” he sang to the melody of the Platters’ hit “Only You.”

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee passed the bill out with a few minor amendments, including one making it clear that venues that offer such acts, including hotel-casinos, are not responsible for any bogus act. The bill will have to pass both houses and be signed by the governor before it becomes law.

Commerce Chairman Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, said the bill would become effective upon passage and approval, to provide protection to the performers as quickly as possible.

Bauman, who is chairman of the Truth in Music Committee of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, said he is pleased with support for the bill that the group has received from Nevada’s casino industry.

“We’re completely on the same page,” Bauman said. “We’re not interested in acting as if the venues are culpable here. Because we feel that they are not.”

The bill was introduced by Sens. Joe Heck, R-Henderson, and Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, on behalf of some Las Vegas performers, including Wilson.

Bauman told the panel that the Truth in Music Committee has succeeded in passing similar legislation in nine other states and is seeking approval in 12 more, including Nevada.

The bill would prohibit a group from calling itself the Drifters, for example, unless one original member of the group is part of the performance. Exceptions would be made for groups clearly identifying themselves as a “tribute” band. Individuals holding rights to a group name also would be exempted from the provisions of the bill.

Civil fines of $5,000 to $10,000, for violating a court order, could be assessed against promoters or groups failing to follow the provisions of the law.

The attorney general’s office had reviewed the bill and didn’t foresee any additional costs associated with enforcing the proposed law because the office already has a deceptive trade practices unit.

Bauman said the legislation has reduced or eliminated imposter groups in other states. It has succeeded by placing the burden of proof on the imposter groups to show they can legitimately use a name, he said.

It has been effective because it allows an attorney general to stop a performance before it occurs to ensure there is a legitimate right to the group name, Bauman said.

He described the phony groups as a form of identity theft.

Wilson, a Las Vegas resident, said she has spent millions of dollars trying unsuccessfully to prosecute fake Supremes groups. Wilson, who does not own the Supremes name, tours as Mary Wilson or “Mary Wilson formerly of the Supremes.”

Bauman said performers are backing the legislation because they have to compete for jobs against fake groups that may charge $5,000 for a performance, while a group including original members might charge $20,000.

Wilson said there are more serious issues the Legislature needs to deal with, from homelessness to care for the elderly, but the bill is important for performers.

“It is helping Americans who have given music to the world,” Wilson said.

Also testifying from Las Vegas was 1950s music fan Donald Riggio, who said he knows which groups have a legitimate claim to a group name and which are fakes because of his love of the music.

“I take it as a personal insult to my intelligence to have these fakers heaped upon me and the other members of the sometimes unsuspecting audience without calling them what they are — a tribute band or review,” Riggio said.

No one spoke in opposition to the measure.

Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, said he was embarrassed that Nevada has not been at the forefront in protecting the artists affected by imposter groups.

But Bauman said the effort to pass the law in Nevada was intentionally delayed until the organization could see how well the measure worked elsewhere.

Nevada is an important state for such a law because of its prominence as an entertainment capital, he said.

“Existing law has proven to be completely ineffective in stopping the practice,” Bauman said. “This is a grey area. These people have learned how to work within existing law.”

Sean Whaley
March 02, 2007
Review-Journal Capital Bureau
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journa

NY Law Targets Band Impersonators

Knockoff music acts that impersonate the real performers can face fines up to $15,000 under a new law in New York

“Music artists work for years to build names for themselves in the entertainment industry,” Gov. Eliot Spitzer said Tuesday after signing the amendments to the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law. “We should not allow others to impersonate their work and profit from that deception.”

Called the “Truth in Music Advertising Law,” it prohibits copycat performances that attempt to cash in through false and misleading representations like names, billings and promotions similar to the original artists. Enforcement by the state attorney general’s office can bring civil penalties ranging from $5,000 to $15,000.

The measure was inspired when well-known recording artists like the Platters, the Coasters and the Drifters suffered financial losses when their acts and routines were copied without permission, according to the governor’s office.

The Drifters, a doo-wop vocal group, first formed in the 1950s at Atlantic Records, had a string of ’60s hits like “This Magic Moment” and “Under the Boardwalk,” and an array of members through decades of recording and performing. Several early members are dead.

The legislation has been dubbed the “Bowzer Bill” for Jon “Bowzer” Bauman of the band Sha Na Na
who has lobbied lawmakers in Albany and other state capitals. He says that while there are Drifters, Coasters and Platters performing with an authentic recording member of the band, there are many others with none.

“There are some groups that have been really very heavily damaged by this, for the most part the groups that had the most hit records from the doo-wop era,” Bauman said. “Unscrupulous people have abused those names and they are putting out multiple impostor groups under those names. We don’t even know how many there are.”

The law requires performing groups to have at least one member of the recording group that they claim a connection to and a legal right to use the name. Or else they must label the production a “tribute” or “salute” or else own the recording group’s trademark or have its authorization.

Sen. John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican who sponsored the bill, said that while some old hits
endure, the law should protect both the band’s reputation and concertgoers from fraud. “Fans want to see the groups they love and should get what they pay for,” said Assemblyman Peter Rivera, a Bronx Democrat
and another sponsor.

Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maine, South Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia, New Jersey, Florida, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Missouri, Texas and Nevada have enacted similar laws, according to the Truth in Music Committee of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame Foundation. California and a few other states are expected to follow shortly, said foundation President Bob Crosby.

“A lot of these groups have spent their life savings chasing the predators in litigation. It’s been really tough because there’s always another gig and the gigs happen faster than the litigation,” Crosby said. “No one is in favor of fake groups except for the impostors. It’s a form of identity theft.”

The next step is enforcement, Bauman said. There are ongoing actions in New Jersey and Pennsylvania with one coming soon in Nevada, he said. Attorney William Charron, representing Singer Management and Live Gold Operations, obtained a temporary restraining order Friday in a New Jersey federal court to block the attorney general from interfering with a show at the Atlantic City Hilton by their groups the Elsberry Hobbs Drifters, the Cornell Gunter Coasters and the Platters, he said. They’re scheduled to return to court Sept. 7, seeking a preliminary injunction.

“The arguments were constitutional, that our clients have valid licenses to these trademarks,” Charron said. He said the law “has the potential for misuse. That’s where our clients find themselves unfortunately caught. They deserve to have their names cleared,” he said.

Michael Virtranen
August 22, 2007
Associated Press