Las Vegas Sun

March 23, 2019

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No Platter left in the Platters

Derek David holds the note, a little flat, but impossibly long and amplified a little too loudly, so it beats out over the audience like a rubber jackhammer. When he pauses for breath and the next syllable, two older ladies in the middle row of seating stand up and start clapping, glaring at their male companions until they, too, rise.

When the song ends, many more people stand and the clapping in the Sahara's Congo Room seems a little louder than it has for the other songs sung by a triple billing of the Platters, Cornell Gunter's Coasters and Beary Hobb's Drifters. David looks as gratified at the applause as a singer could be. And they say he's been singing the music of the Platters for 36 years.

And maybe he has. But with whose Platters?

Certainly not the original lineup that dominated the late '50s with hits such as "Only You" and "The Great Pretender." Nor was he part of the '60s lineup or the largely forgotten replacement 1970 lineup.

Since then, though, he could have been in any number of acts touring county fairs and casinos as the Platters, the Coasters or the Drifters (but probably not as one of the Marvelettes or the Supremes). Although they often lack original members or a firm legal claim to the name, they present themselves as direct-line heirs to the kings of doo-wop and the queens of Motown.

But in Nevada, bands like these may soon become illegal.

"This is a sophisticated form of identity theft, but it's still identity theft," says Jon Bauman, better known as Bowzer from Sha Na Na. "It's been mushrooming in the last 12 to 15 years, and it needs to stop."

Bauman has been barnstorming state legislatures around the country as chairman of the Vocal Music Hall of Fame's Truth in Music committee, which wants the impostors stopped. So far five states have agreed and passed Bauman's bill and five more are considering it.

"It's almost like in the Gold Rush days where they would just stake their claim anywhere and grab what they could," says Mary Wilson, one of the original Supremes who now lives in Las Vegas. "But it's our images and it's our legacies these people are stealing."

Wilson guesses she has spent more than $2 million fighting impostor groups and that there are still five or six saccharine Supremes acts touring - going strong because booking agents sometimes prefer cheap, imitation Supremes to the more expensive real thing.

But in the eyes of the law, it's not Mary Wilson's legacy either. Whatever she may have sung and whenever she may have sung it do not matter. What matters is she does not hold the registered trademark. Without it, she can't stop anyone else from performing under the name.

Wilson, sick of decades of ineffective lawsuits, has appeared in statehouses around the nation arguing for the Truth in Music bill and is now bringing the fight to her home state.

State Sens. Joe Heck, R-Henderson, and Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, have agreed to introduce the bill in the Legislature's next session.

Nearly all of the bands that are ripped off by impostors are famous black vocal acts of the '50s and '60s.

The musicians often signed contracts that left them with little, if any, right to their bands' names. The lawsuits that ensued muddied the waters so much that impostors sprang up with trademarks registered to themselves, licensed from relatives of deceased band members or sometimes with no trademark at all.

But another reason is that the fame of these groups very rarely conferred itself on individual musicians.

"Because of the social situation in America, if you were black, you couldn't put your picture on an album and expect it to sell," Wilson says. "White people wouldn't buy it."

The musicians in black vocal groups were not promoted as individual celebrities the way the members of later acts such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were.

Sonny Turner was the second lead singer for the Platters, and throughout the '60s he powered hits such as "I Love You 1,000 Times" and "With This Ring." These days he lives in Las Vegas and still performs, but don't look for him under a marquee advertising "The Platters" or even "Sonny Turner of The Platters."

There's already a Platters act in town, and it plays 365 nights a year alongside versions of the Coasters and the Drifters, none of which contain any musicians who sang on those bands' biggest records. But there they are, using the name, and booking agents aren't about to confuse tourists by booking a second Platters act.

"Our legacy is being ripped away from us," Turner says. "I'm working two weekends out of the month, and they're working 24/7."

The nostalgia of oldies music is a powerful draw for a generation hungry for the music of its youth but often unfamiliar with the musicians who made it. For these audiences, all it takes is the name.

"They grew up with the music. It's part of their lives," Turner says. "They're going to have packed houses year-round."

The packed houses are why promoters of ersatz groups say it's not who sings but what they sing that matters. And, they point out, these bands often underwent lineup changes during their most successful years. As long as a group can make some claim to the band's name, they say, an impostor group is not an impostor as long as it sounds good.

But for oldies musicians, it doesn't matter how good the group sounds. It's a matter of pride.

"Some of them are talented and they're professional, and they put on a good show because they're talented individuals," Wilson says, "but it's not their legacy."

The Truth in Music bill would largely settle these disputes in favor of original recording artists. It wouldn't affect acts that perform as "a tribute to the Supremes" or as "a salute to the Platters" - under it, impersonators are fine but impostors are illegal. However, because the bill has to comply with federal law, it might not stop all impostor acts from performing.

The bill allows acts to perform if they have a registered trademark. Because original recording artists either never held the trademark or relinquished their rights to it when they left the group, it's often someone quite different who holds the name.

Take, for instance, the case of the Platters: a baroque 40-year tale of lawsuits, appeals and court orders.

In 1955, the band burst onto the charts with "Only You," a song written by Buck Ram, the band's manager. Ram formed The Five Platters Inc. and gave each band member stock in the corporation with the understanding that anyone leaving the band would relinquish rights to its name.

In 1960, lead singer Tony Williams left and was replaced by Sonny Turner. In 1969, Herb Reed, by then the last original member of the band, left the Platters. In 1970, Turner left, too, and an entirely new lineup was created.

The group playing at the Sahara is licensed out by 83-year-old Jean Bennett, the original band's business brains who later bought out and inherited Ram's Platters empire. Whether she holds the rights to the Platters name is not clear. She says she's not sure but that she holds "some kind of right, as do many others."

Turner's manager certainly thinks so. In 2005, he bought the rights to the name, licensing agreements for existing Platters groups and Bennett's memorabilia. Now he's not sure who owns the Platters trademark, which has been lately the subject of court battles between Bennett and original Platter Herb Reed.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, for its part, says the trademark is held by Herb Reed.

The complications get deeper by the day. Turner's manager is suing Bennett because he says she tried to back out of the sale after signing a contract. Bennett says he tricked her into signing the contract.

The lawsuit also involves Larry Marshak, who seems to manage all three acts playing at the Sahara. He doesn't claim Beary Hobb's Drifters. That would be wise of him because a federal court has barred him from using the name "The Drifters" or anything like it. The attorney for trademark holders of the Drifters doesn't believe Marshak and has asked the courts to put a stop to the show.

The Sahara, for its part, says it merely rents the room to Marshak, but presumes he has legitimate licenses.

None of the turbulence was apparent to the nearly full house in the Sahara's Congo Room on Wednesday night. The ersatz Platters, Coasters and Drifters worked a mostly elderly crowd with a selection of the greatest vocal hits of the doo-wop and soul era. The backing band's guitar player wasn't bad. And the singers managed to coax the crowd into a standing ovation by closing with "Stand Up America."

It's unclear which, if any, of the lawsuits will manage to close the Sahara show or whether the Truth in Music bill will have any effect, although "Bowzer" Bauman says that he believes the act will generally make it easier to close impostor shows.

"Vegas is undoubtedly going to be a battleground, and a very important one," Bauman says. "But they're losing everywhere."