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February 21, 2019

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Who can use the Platters name onstage? Depends on whom you ask

Platters Dispute

Christopher DeVargas

Jean Bennett, a former assistant to Platters manager Buck Ram, is photographed in her home Friday, Aug. 10, 2012.

Platters Dispute

Jean Bennett, a former assistant to Platters manager Buck Ram, is photographed in her home Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. Launch slideshow »

At 89, Las Vegas entertainment figure Jean Bennett should be comfortably retired and satisfied with her life’s work promoting and managing the 1950s super group the Platters.

She’s not.

While Bennett is proud of her work, she’s bitter about a recent turn of events that culminated in U.S. Marshals raiding her bank account last month and seizing $3,333 to partially satisfy a judgment against her.

“I’m broke,” Bennett said last week.

The revelation is startling given the fact that Bennett was one of the first female executives in the music industry and for a time controlled the parent company of the Platters. Those ownership rights, it turns out, weren’t as lucrative as imagined, in part because of decades of expensive litigation over the Platters name.

Bennett said her biggest problem now is Massachusetts music industry figure Fred Balboni Jr., who manages a company owned by the late Herb Reed, one of the original Platters singers. That company was recently successful in suing Bennett and others over trademark rights to the Platters name.

Bennett called Balboni a “vulture” who pursues dubious trademark claims and is intent on taking her last dime and even her home. Balboni, however, suggested Bennett deserves no sympathy after spending decades misrepresenting her role in the Platters’ success. Balboni said a 2011 court ruling he won against Bennett over the Platters name “finally put an end to her charades after years of public deception.”

“According to many public documents, Jean liked to take the success of the Platters as her own, thus committing identity theft on five of music history’s greatest vocalists,” Balboni said.

The Platters were created in 1953 in Los Angeles, though accounts differ about who the founding members were. Some say the group started as the Flamingos but had to change its name when a Flamingos group in Chicago had a hit. (The Chicago Flamingos would later make the charts with “I Only Have Eyes For You.”)

The Bennett camp argues Reed wasn’t an original Los Angeles Flamingo but was later invited to join the group when it changed its name to the Platters. This is important because Reed is often referred to as a founding member of the Platters in legal documents.

Balboni says that argument is bogus and points to a 1967 court affidavit by Bennett saying, “Herb Reed had formed the group and had named it the Platters.”

In any event, the Platters became known as the first black group to cross over to the pop charts with hits like “Only You,” “The Great Pretender” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

The group got its name because at the time, music was played on 78 rpm records that looked like dish platters. Both sides in the Bennett-Reed feud agree Reed came up with the name.

Click to enlarge photo

Herb Reed, founder and naming member of The Platters, has filed a trademark lawsuit against Nevada entertainer Monroe Powell over Powell's use of the group's name.

Central to understanding the Platters and how it became entangled in so many trademark lawsuits since the 1960s is the fact that it was organized like a sports team rather than a group that would naturally disband as original members left. Just as an NFL team signs a new quarterback when the old one is injured, traded or retires, Platters singers were considered employees. Each of five singing spots over the years was filled by dozens of artists. Bennett says that more than 145 singers were legitimate members of the Platters.

Because of that setup, the Platters weren’t associated with one or more irreplaceable singers in the way that the Rolling Stones are associated with Mick Jagger or the Beatles were associated with John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

In fact, most Americans would be hard-pressed to name the lead singer who performed the original versions of the Platters’ big hits — the late Tony Williams — and most couldn’t identify the group’s original manager and producer — Buck Ram. Ram wrote “Only You” and “The Great Pretender.”

As for compensation, each of the five original Platters received 20 percent ownership of the company. But by 1966, Bennett had acquired control of the company from Ram and most of the singers. Only one of the original members, Reed, continued to hold his 20 percent.

It was also in 1966 that Bennett moved to Las Vegas.

“It was the entertainment capital of the world,” said Bennett, who had offices in Las Vegas and New York promoting the Platters and other groups.

Bennett, a cousin to actress Lana Turner, got her start with the Platters after moving from Missouri to Los Angeles in the early 1950s to pursue a singing career. Instead, she connected with Ram, first as an assistant and publicist and later as a business and life partner.

Ram was by all accounts the creative genius behind the Platters.

Although the Platters were founded in Los Angeles, they regularly performed in Las Vegas. In 1955, they played the opening night of the Moulin Rouge, the first interracial casino in the United States. Ram wrote the lyrics to “The Great Pretender” in a Flamingo bathroom.

Like Bennett, Ram was battered by the flurry of trademark lawsuits that began in the 1960s over the Platters name. Litigation erupted because as singers left the group, some continued performing using the Platters name. By 2010, there were at least 20 groups using some form of the name, Bennett said.

Lawsuit records show that the Ram-Bennett company Five Platters Inc. tangled in court with four of the original Platters: Zola Taylor, Paul Robi, Reed and Williams. The fifth original member, David Lynch, appears to be the only one who wasn’t involved in the major lawsuits.

Additional litigation pitted members against each other, and, after the original members died, their heirs and licensees filed lawsuits. Most focused on the right to live performances (as opposed to song and movie royalties).

“In the ’60s, bogus Platters groups began to pop up,” Bennett said in a court filing. “Ram and I fought them in courts all over the world and had trademarks in many countries. The proliferation of phony Platters groups dilutes the value of the name. We spent more than $5 million in more than 35 cases in the courts over four decades trying to stop these groups, but it has been impossible despite court rulings.”

Money wasn’t the only problem for Ram and Bennett. Their reputations also suffered as a result of the litigation.

One judge accused Ram of pushing sham deals and taking advantage of group members. Rolling Stone magazine in a 2007 feature about “fake” bands said the Platters was the most-abused band name ever because after Bennett purchased management of the Platters in 1966, she “operated the group like a McDonald’s, eager to franchise the act for a cut of the profits.”

Bennett and her associates deny that charge. She said that in the 1990s, after Ram died and she no longer managed an official Platters group, she licensed the name to only two permanent Platters groups, along with occasional one-time deals.

One license went to a group in Branson, Mo., and the other to New York businessman Larry Marshak, who until recently promoted shows at the Sahara and the Rio called “The Platters, Cornell Gunter’s Coasters and the Marvelettes.”

Click to enlarge photo

Buck Ram and Jean Bennett

Even after licensing the names to both parties, Bennett didn’t call either group genuine Platters.

“They were a reasonable facsimile,” Bennett said of Marshak’s group at the Rio.

In 2010, founding Platter bass singer Herb Reed’s company, managed by Balboni, sued Bennett in federal court in Las Vegas over the Platters name. Reed, at the time, was the only original group member still alive, and he claimed that he alone held the rights to the Platters trademark.

Bennett fought the lawsuit on her own, saying she couldn’t afford an attorney. She lost and was ordered to pay more than $95,000 in attorney’s fees.

“There is no question that the plaintiffs (Reed) own a valid and protectable mark,” U.S. District Judge James Mahan wrote in his order. “The public is misled when attending a performance without any original members of the band.”

The $3,333 taken by marshals from Bennett’s account last month appears to be the first payment Reed’s company has seized in the case. Balboni says he will continue to collect from Bennett.

Reed died June 4 at the age of 83. His estate won interim injunctions against Marshak and another Platters group. Both were barred from using the Platters name except as a revue or tribute, although both cases are still being litigated.

The ruling against Marshak came despite his arguing that he had obtained rights to the Platters name not only from Bennett but from the estate of Williams.

Bennett and her associates, however, are furious.

“The whole thing is a fraud,” said Gayle Schreiber of Las Vegas, a former officer of the Ram-Bennett Platters company and a longtime assistant to both. “Herb Reed had been denied the rights over and over again.”

“I liked Herb,” Bennett said. But “this guy (Balboni) comes in, and he’s trying to take everything.”

Balboni defended himself and threw a barb at Bennett.

“Obviously, Jean is emotional about this issue,” Balboni said. “While Jean rightfully respected Herb, he never trusted, liked or respected her.”

Balboni said Reed’s estate has been in talks about potentially creating a Platters musical theater production. He said the company will continue to promote the Platters despite Reed’s death.

Bennett, however, is steadfast in her belief that she’s still the owner of the Platters name despite her recent legal setbacks.

“I helped make them,” she said. “I’m the one who wore out the shoe leather.”

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