Tuesday, June 15, 1999 | 9:17 a.m.
In a makeshift showroom in the Sahara hotel-casino, a couple hundred baby boomers are thrilling to the sounds of yesteryear.
The band -- four men snazzily attired in black pants and white jackets, and billed as "Billy Guy's Coasters" -- launches into hit after hit, from "Love Potion No. 9" to "Yakety Yak," earning a standing ovation.
Near the end of the set, the lead singer finally introduces himself and his fellow band members.
But where is Billy Guy? It seems the billed member of the original Coasters is nowhere in the bunch.
Next up on the evening's triple bill: The Platters. A keen eye will note that there isn't a gray hair in the bunch, and that lead singer Curtis Michael probably wasn't even alive in 1956, the time the group was scoring hits such as "The Magic Touch" and "The Great Pretender."
Last, but not least, the emcee introduces The "Mighty, Mighty" Drifters. As singer Rick Shepherd launches into one of the band's biggest numbers -- "Under the Boardwalk" -- he confides to the crowd, "As the Drifters, we went on to have hit after hit."
There's only one problem: The "we" he refers to are not the three other singers on the stage with him. Shepherd is, in fact, the only singer on the Sahara stage who can legitimately claim to have performed as an original artist in the headlined acts.
Consumers beware: Oldies revival acts frequenting Las Vegas showrooms may not be what -- or who -- you think they are.
These so-called "imposter" acts are actually put together by savvy booking agents who have come to control the band's trademark name. Often they don't include any of the artists who made the songs memorable.
This infuriates the remaining original artists who are starting to fight back, saying these imitation groups hurt their careers by charging much less to perform and devaluing their market worth. Even worse, they gripe, the imposters often do a lousy imitation, costing them fans and future bookings to boot.
Others in the industry say that the fight is more one of sour grapes: "The guy who was smart enough to own the name is being harassed because he had the money and guys to put it together," observes one local promoter, who prefered to go unnamed. "I think he's going to win."
Congress lends an ear
The debate has made its way to Congress, thanks to the 2-year-old Artists & Others Against Imposters (AOAI), a nonprofit group of musical artists who have banded together, including Gladys Horton of The Marvelettes ("Please Mr. Postman"), Mary Wilson of The Supremes ("Stop! In the Name of Love") and Herb Reed of The Platters ("Only You").
"Imitation is supposedly the sincerest form of flattery -- (but) not when it robs you of your ability to earn a living," Arizona activist Joyce Moore, the wife of Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, and AOAI's founder, notes. "We've done more to protect our historical landmarks and endangered species than these artists."
That may soon change. The group brought the issue to the attention of Capitol Hill last summer and the resulting "Truth in Rock" bill is widely expected to pass the House and Senate unopposed this session.
The proposed law would create a federally-chartered registry called the Association to Preserve Authenticity in Music Groups, which would certify which acts are authentic -- and which are not.
"We're not trying to drive imposters out of the market," explains Fred Wilhelms, AOAI's counsel, who is helping draft the legislation. "We just want them to be honest. Right now the consumer is being sold grape juice in wine bottles."
For example, the AOAI contends that management groups such as Larry Marshak's RCI Corp. in New York currently stages duplicate Drifters and Coasters acts on the road at any given time. On April 4, "Billy Guy's Coasters" were scheduled to play both the Sahara showroom and the Baltimore Arena simultaneously.
Other acts commonly passing through Las Vegas, such as the "Legends of Motown" at Caesars Palace, feature The Marvelettes -- another Marshak group featuring no original members.
"There is a falsity and a fraud being committed on the consumer," Moore says. "If they had billed these shows as what they are, a salute or a tribute, we'd have nothing to say to them. That would be honest, that would not be consumer fraud."
Marshak says the original members are mainly unhappy that they're not working. "If they had a good act, they'd be able to," he counters. "These people are spending too much time in legislation and not enough time putting their act together."
The AOAI has no probem with impersonation acts such as "Legends in Concert" at the Imperial Palace, the Stratosphere's "American Superstars" or the Gold Coast's tributes to Patsy Cline and Neil Diamond, because each clearly labels its act a "tribute."
"I wouldn't have a problem if we had 20 'salutes' going on around the country," Moore says, "but I have a terrible problem with the lie that these groups are real. They're a bunch of wannabes who are now sort-of-bes."
But Marshak, who owns the legal rights to the names, recently told the Los Angeles Times that "the public is well aware that there are no original members of these groups." Marshak cites a survey he conducted of a Las Vegas audience in which 87 percent of the members said they were aware the act wasn't comprised of originals -- or didn't care.
"I don't keep it a secret," Marshak said. "It's not deceptive. We make it clear that's what we do."
Marshak likens his changing roster of musicians to a baseball team, a Broadway musical or the New York Philharmonic.
"These musical groups have always had multiple members," he explains. "Managers decided to hire and fire people and, usually, there's no tie to the individual's name. The groups are more associated with the producer who put them together. It's like what Menudo does. It's something that has gotten a lot of publicity, but it was always common."
Still, after negative media accounts, the acts have learned to be more careful in their wording on stage, never directly making a reference that implies they were around during the pivotal years. Instead of "we recorded this song in 1962," they'll tell the audience, "We're going to take you back to 1962."
Linda Crane, senior vice president of entertainment for Caesars Worldwide, says her main consideration in booking such acts is the legality and the quality of them. "You book the act (that) has the legal right to the name," she says. "That's what I worry about because I don't want to get in trouble."
As for whether the practice can be misleading to customers, she replied: "Sure, if they knew, it would bother them. But I think the quality of the show is (most) important."
It may not have mattered to the audience, but it mattered enough to Mary Wilson of The Supremes, who irately complained to People magazine about performing at Caesars' "Legends of Motown" show last October alongside the new Marvelettes and not the old friends she expected to see.
Nevertheless, Crane has booked the act for a return appearance in August -- minus Wilson -- adding, "it does very well for us."
Other casinos attempt to bill these acts more precisely.
Last July the Hilton booked an act featuring singers who at one time had sung with the band, carefully billing it as the "Former Ladies of the Supremes." But when the same act made a side appearance in February at Sun City's Pinnacle Community Center, it was billed on fliers only as The Supremes.
Splitting legal hairs
The battle over who legally owns the name can cause some confusion.
For example, in April, Caesars Palace featured The Temptations with former lead singer and trademark holder Otis Williams and three fill-ins. A few weeks later the Flamingo Hilton billed "The Temptation Review," featuring two of the original singers, Ali Woodson and Richard Street, who say they are also are entitled to use The Temptations moniker.
"Are they legally The Temptations? Who knows?" says the show's promoter (again, the unnamed promoter), with a sigh. "It's all by what the attorneys figure out."
"It gets kind of crazy," Foster Wilson, vice president of entertainment at the Las Vegas Hilton, says. Although he is sympathetic to the original artists' plight, he says that "at some point, if you've got two groups squabbling over who has the most original group member, I'd probably go on and book somebody else."
Wilson points out that even if these groups hold the legal right to the name, whether or not to book them can become an ethical problem for an entertainment director.
"Usually, we rely on the agencies and managers to tell us what is true, in terms of the group's originality and so forth," Wilson explains. "Even if the group doesn't care, we do. It becomes a thing of responsibility -- how do you get the message out so you're not deceiving the public?"
But the promoter points out that: "People don't care, that's what's really amazing.
"In my opinion, I don't think anybody could tell the difference," he says. "I saw the show, and I've been in the business since I was 13, and I couldn't tell the difference. People know the songs, they don't know the acts that well."
Indeed, audiences at the Sahara show seem indifferent to the artists' cause. When told these acts basically didn't feature original band members, no one is very disturbed.
"I knew that, but they still do a great job," says Joseph Ferreira, a tourist from Ft. Lauderdale who used to watch the originals on TV in his youth. "The music is still the same."
Moore snorts at responses such as these, likening them to saying that the artistry of a Picasso painting is "just the paint." She has contacted the Consumer Fraud Division of the Nevada Attorney General's office, hoping to launch an investigation.
This tactic has worked before: Two months ago, she contacted the Arizona Attorney General's office after spotting a Drifters booking being plugged at an upcoming music fair. The Arizona office stepped in and asked the concert promoter to alter his advertising to make it "A Tribute to the Drifters."
Tracey Brierly, a deputy attorney general in the Bureau of Consumer Protection in Las Vegas, declines to comment on whether the office is investigating, but adds that they haven't received any complaints to date.
"We're interested in protecting the consumers -- if we can substantiate it," she notes. "Anyone who feels they've been taken advantage of should contact the Attorney General's office."
The Moores' own experience makes them a perfect example of the artists' concerns.
After the Grammy-award winning band Sam and Dave ("Soul Man") broke up, Sam Moore's ex-partner, Dave Prater Jr., simply took on a new "Sam" and went on tour, promoting the act as "Sam and Dave."
"Never, ever did they tell anyone that Sam was a fake," Sam Moore testified before a congressional subcomittee earlier this month. "(He) did his best to sound like me and look like me. He autographed records that I had sung on, many of which went gold. Arkansas declared a 'Sam and Dave Day' in the mid-'80s, but that wasn't me at the ceremony with then-Gov. Clinton."
"Agents would say, 'If you would only get another Dave, we could get Sam hundreds of jobs,' " Joyce Moore recalls. "How insulting, how condescending, to just get some guy and pawn him off as Dave."
Instead Sam Moore took the opposite approach, chasing his ex-partner through several jurisdictions, attempting to get injunctions and citations against his advertising campaigns, encountering "staggering" legal bills in the process.
In 1988 the personal fight ended for the Moores when Prater died in a car crash. But soon they turned what they learned into a larger crusade for their fellow artists.
Using her contacts in Washington (she planned President George Bush's inaugral party), Moore founded the artists' association in September 1997.
The group got Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Georgia, to co-sponsor the legislation, which drew the support of the Recording Industry Association of America and, eventually, the Association of Intellectual Prpoerty Lawyers of America.
On May 5, the House Judiciary Intellectual Property Subcommittee held hearings, and on May 26 the House Judiciary Committee passed it by voice vote. A vote is expected in the House soon.
Aside from establishing the credentialing group with a unique hallmark label, the group also hopes to add wording to the bill to beef up the amount of damages for which artists can sue.
"I'm very confident that when this process is over, we're going to have an association in place, and it's going to separate the sheep from the goats, the real from the fakes," Wilhelms, the AOAI's counsel, says. "It's been an amazing civics lesson."
Perhaps. But the consumers' lesson still seems incomplete.
After the show the crowd at the Sahara congregates in the lobby for a "meet and greet" with the singers.
One woman shows off a CD she has bought of one of the groups. It is not an original label recording, but a cheaply produced demo of the band's live shows.
Inside, she is thrilled to display, she has gotten an autograph from each member of the band.