States Move to Protect Legendary Band Names
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Check the listings for your local theater or club and you might find some legendary names from rock and roll and soul music. The Platters, the Coasters, the Drifters and the Supremes are all currently on tour. In some cases these groups include one original member, in others the musicians weren't even born when these groups had their original hits. Well now consumer advocates and musicians rights groups are pushing states to pass legislation that would prevent many of these musicians from performing under those famous names. Av Harris of member station WNPR reports on what's known as Truth in Music legislation.
AV HARRIS reporting:
In 1953 four high school kids in Los Angeles started singing together under the name the Platters.
(Soundbite of music)
HARRIS: Two years later with the addition of a female singer they released their first hit.
(Soundbite of song Only You):
Mr. TONY WILLIAMS (Lead Singer, The Platters): (singing) Only you can make this world seem right.
HARRIS: Only You by the Platters was one of the first rock and roll tunes by an all-black vocal group to cross over and have mass appeal with a mainstream audience.
(Soundbite of song Only You):
Mr. WILLIAMS:(singing) Only you and you alone can thrill me like you do.
Mr. HERB REED (Bass Singer, The Platters): I'm Herb Reed and everybody calls me Herb. I'm the guy who organized the Platters, I'm the guy who named the Platters the Platters. And most people would know that I'm the bass singer of the Platters.
(Soundbite of song):
Mr. REED: (singing) You'll never know…
Mr. WILLIAMS: (singing) You'll never, never, know I care. You'll never know this much I bear.
HARRIS: At the time the group made it's first record the Platters were bass Herb Reed, baritone Paul Robie, tenor David Lynch, alto Zola Taylor and tenor Tony Williams who sang lead. Today only Herb Reed and Zola Taylor are still alive. Taylor was incapacitated by a stroke four years ago, but Herb Reed is still performing at 78 with a pencil-thin mustache and a twinkle in his eye. He's in great physical shape and plays a lot of cruise ships and casinos. Though he earns some royalties from the Platters classic recordings, he tours to pay the bills. But that job is made harder by what one fan website lists as more than 80 groups performing in the U.S. and Europe under the name the Platters.
Mr. REED: These people who had anything whatsoever to do with the Platters at all. What they've done, they destroyed the major markets for the Platters.
HARRIS: Even back in 1987, Buck Ram, the man who wrote most of the Platter hits and managed the group, told NPR he was concerned that other musicians using that name were as prevalent as worms in a spring garden.
Mr. BUCK RAM (Former Manager of the Platters): Every time you lift a rock there's another Platter group.
HARRIS: But Ram himself created this problem. He owned the rights to the name and, like many managers and impresarios of early rock and roll, believed audiences came to hear the hits and didn't care who sang them.
Mr. RAM: The critics of our generation don't realize that the people, even though they're not musicians, they come to hear what they love which is a song. The song and the way it's presented. Otherwise we'd be only copying Tony Williams.
(Soundbite of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes):
Mr. WILLIAMS: (singing) They asked me how I knew my true love was true. Oh, I of course replied, something here inside cannot be denied.
HARRIS: Buck Ram actually licensed Platters knockoffs because he would reap the financial benefits in much the same way as Gene Bennett does today, with about a half a dozen Platters groups.
(Soundbite of song):
Unidentified Man: (singing) Oh we are the Platters of today. Buck Ram's music is here to stay.
HARRIS: Jean Bennett was Buck Ram's longtime assistant and bought the company before his death in 1991. By then, Bennett and Buck Ram sued several members of the original group who split off to form their own bands using the Platter's name.
JEAN BENNETT: I won a number, a lot of cases, you know, because we had copyrighted, we had trademarked the name. And I still have rights because I was with Buck Ram who had as many rights as much as the Platters. More so, because without him they would never had made it. You know, he was the creator and voices can be substituted.
HARRIS: Court decisions as recently as 2002 have given Jean Bennett and her company, Personality Productions, the rights to the name the Platters. But a call to the Federal Trademark office revealed that Herb Reed owns the registered trademark. It's confusing, and the Platters are just one example.
JOHN BOWMAN (Singer): The pioneer groups of doo-wop, you know, and early rock and roll are the ones who have been most heavily damaged by imposters because they were so anonymous. People weren't familiar with the original members.
HARRIS: John Bowman is probably best known by the stage name Bowser that he adopted when he performed with Sha Na Na. Today he tours with his own spin-off group, Bowser's Rock and Roll Party. He's also chairman of the Truth in Music Committee for the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that's pushing states to enact legislation to stop what Bowman calls imposter bands.
Mr. BOWMAN: In some cases they have no connection whatsoever to the group, in some cases they have a very limited circuitous connection. You know, claiming that someone who quit the group 50 years ago gave them rights, or their relative gave them rights, you know. There are too many shows in too many venues, in too many states, to be stopped by one group trying to enforce their trademark with limited funds.
HARRIS: To help those original musicians, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and North Dakota have all passed Truth in Music legislation and Connecticut lawmakers are debating it now.
Professor JAY ROSENTHAL (George Washington University): To enforce the rights to publicity and rights of trademark that we talk about in relationship to a band's name, one of the individuals has to step forward and do it. You've got to be the injured party. Here we're talking about laws that give local officials the ability to fine, not only the bands that might be the imposter bands themselves, but the venues that promote bands.
HARRIS: Jay Rosenthal teaches Entertainment Law at George Washington University. The Connecticut Truth in Music Bill requires that if a band is going to use the name of a famous rock group it has to have at least one member of the original recording group. If the Connecticut bill becomes law, the State Attorney General could seek injunctions to block performances by groups that don't meet these criteria. But Rosenthal worries that slight variations between state laws could create confusion.
Professor ROSENTHAL: What is the standard? You know, what does a band have to do to prove that I am the original band? You know, whether you want to show them the original records, whether you want to show them your original contracts. This would also be why a national law might be a good idea, because then you'll have one standard.
HARRIS: Ultimately Rosenthal says this music is our culture, and those original artists still left alive to perform it should be enjoying their golden years. Herb Reed couldn't agree more, and says the other bands using the name the Platters are hurting both him and the paying public.
Mr. REED: What it does is that, number one, it cheapens your name. Number two, the people don't know who they're buying. Let's say an ardent fan says, oh, the Platters, I'm going to see the show. When they get and they say, wait a minute, wait a minute, what's this? That can't be the Platters, you know. First place they're too young, second place they don't have the sound, so, you know, they're getting ripped off.
HARRIS: Reed says he hopes Truth in Music laws will clear up once and for all who's the real thing and who's, well, the great pretender. For NPR News I'm Av Harris in Hartford.
(Soundbite of song The Great Pretender):
Mr. WILLIAMS: (singing) Oh yes I'm the great pretender. Pretending that I'm doing well. My needs is such…
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