Give Us the Real Thing!
This article comes from the Boston Globe...
Herb Reed, the founding member of one of early rock 'n' roll's most
popular groups, The Platters, wants to silence the impostor bands that
are making millions off of his music and ruining his legacy.
By RUSSELL NICHOLS, October 29, 2006
HERB REED, a short man with a thick mustache, reclines in his Arlington
condominium, eight floors up, on a drizzly afternoon. The room is strewn
with priceless pieces of his past: black-and-white photographs of Reed
in his 20s on tables, old album covers stacked beside a bookshelf,
clocks telling the time in London and Las Vegas, worn passports, and
gold records on the walls. This is the world he knows, the life he
molded from meager beginnings in the Midwest with the bass voice he
trained to harmonize. It has been more than five decades since he
started The Platters, in 1953. Of the five original members from the
group's first recording contract, three have died and one is in a
nursing home in California. But Reed still plays nearly 200 shows a year
- many on cruise ships in the Caribbean - with a new generation of
And he is tired. Not from the shows or the media or the fans who know
every word to hits like "Only You," "The Great Pretender," and "Smoke
Gets in Your Eyes." He is tired because, for years, countless groups
have been touring the world as The Platters - but without Reed or his
blessing or any ties to the original singers. There are Platters
everywhere on any night on any given stage, singing the songs Reed
helped make famous. There is a group called The Platters that performs
regularly in Las Vegas at the Sahara Hotel & Casino. There is the World
Famous Platters from Branson, Missouri. There is the Legendary Platters
For Reed, the fight to stop these so-called impostor bands has been a
tough journey replete with dead ends. He says he has spent millions in
legal fees with few results. The impostor-band phenomenon has prompted
several states to enact laws to prevent copycat groups from performing,
measures designed to protect artists as well as consumers, who often buy
tickets believing they will be seeing original singers. (Tribute bands
that clearly advertise they're just playing covers are exempt from these
laws.) A version of the bill passed in the Massachusetts Senate this
year and awaits a vote by the House.
Reed, now 78, refuses to respect any band, even a tribute band, that
makes money off of his work. He sits in his room of mementos that mark
where he has been and what he has been through. He feels violated, just
like the victim who lost thousands of dollars and her good credit rating
to identity thieves or the struggling screenwriter whose script was
stolen and made into a big-budget movie without his permission. "They
are destroying my legacy by being as bad as they are," Reed says of the
impostors. "There are so many phonies out there. It's like the plague."
MUSICIANS ON TODAY'S CHARTS experience another kind of theft - the
duplication and distribution of recordings without authorization, called
music piracy. But they are mostly safe from performers who might try to
impersonate them. Formal contracts and copyright laws protect the real
artists, as do savvy fans who wouldn't be fooled by a fake Ludacris or
U2 or Beyonce. But oldies groups are another story. For years, they've
seen copycats pretending to be them and, until the recent push for
legislation, getting away with it.
All year long, venues across the country book groups with names such as
The Platters, The Supremes, The Drifters, and The Coasters, rarely
informing the public that the groups are just cover bands with no
connection to the original members. Although some oldies groups with no
black members such as The Diamonds and Bill Haley and His Comets have
also been victimized by impostor bands, the ones that have been hit the
hardest are black groups from the 1950s and 1960s. Their music comes
from a time when media attention, especially for black artists, was
limited. Fans didn't necessarily know the names or faces of the members
of their favorite groups. In many cases, poor business decisions made
decades ago left the rights to the group names in the hands of record or
production companies, not the original group members. Groups have broken
up. Some members have died. But the groups' names have lived on.
Mary Wilson, 62, an original member of The Supremes, performs about 100
gigs a year and says there are at least five other groups using the name
"Supremes" without permission. Motown, her former record company, owns
the trademark to the name, and Wilson says she has spent more than $2
million in legal fees to acquire it, to no avail. Although Wilson has
used the group name in the past, she says she now tours mainly under her
own name. "I have a garage full of lawsuits, and I don't think I've ever
won any of them," she says from her home in Las Vegas. "I'd hate to have
to die heartbroken knowing these people are still out there performing,
stealing our names."
Many musical venues profit from these copycat groups. Sometimes the
impostor bands underbid the originals, much to the promoters' delight.
The advertisements go out and the tickets get sold, often at steep
prices to unsuspecting buyers. Maxine Porter, longtime manager for Bill
Pinkney, an early member of The Drifters, says she receives hundreds of
e-mails from fans who feel betrayed after purchasing tickets for a show
with a copycat group. This letter arrived in June:
At least I hope this makes it to you, Bill.
I was in Las Vegas last week, and attended a show featuring the
Platters, the Coasters and the Drifters. The thought of being able to
hear the Coasters and Platters was okay, but the Drifters!!!! That was
the reason I went!
I was disappointed to learn that I wouldn't be hearing even one of the
original members of any of those groups - most especially my Drifters. I
asked the performers afterward about where the original Drifters are,
and no one wanted to say much about any of you.
"There's nothing wrong with singing the music. There's nothing wrong
with doing the shows," says Porter, who lives in Las Vegas. "There's
everything wrong with representing the music to the public where
innocent buyers believe they will see someone who was a direct
participant in the legacy. These Drifters are actually younger than the
records they're singing." Porter believes that the 81-year-old Pinkney,
as a decorated veteran of World War II, deserves some sort of protection
from the country he fought for. "Having given that service to America, I
would think that America would give him protection in his ninth decade
as he tries to keep alive the music that he created," she says. "We've
all heard that imitation is the best form of flattery, but when you take
a person's legacy and attempt to claim it as your own without giving
them the respect, that is unsettling."
But supporters of these copycats argue that bands from the '50s and '60s
were often known for their music, not their members. Since few, if any,
of the groups remain fully intact, some also argue that there is no
difference between a group with no original members and a group with
only one. The fans, they say, just want to hear the classic tunes to
reminisce - to carry them, if only for a few hours, back to the good old
Harvey Robbins, a local oldies show promoter who founded the Doo-Wopp
Hall of Fame, a program that honors original bands from the '50s and
'60s at Symphony Hall in Boston, sees both sides of the argument. He
says the impostor-band conflict is tangled in a web of trademarks and
"motivated by self-promotion." He despises that copycat groups deceive
the public, but he also says their existence is a matter of time and
law. "If you see the Boston Celtics, who's playing? Bill Russell? Larry
Bird?" he asks. "They're not there because time has taken a toll. If a
group has a legal trademark, owns the legal rights, and has represented
the music of the original recordings in a proper fashion, that group
should not be disallowed from representing themselves as the group by
REED GREW UP poor in segregated Kansas City, Missouri. His parents died
before he was 10. As a young teen, he sang with friends on front stoops
and in a church choir. It was how he coped. When he was 15, Reed
accepted a friend's invitation to ride with her to Los Angeles. He had
never even heard of the city but moved there with only $3 and a cigar
box containing a toothbrush, comb, and handkerchief. In LA, Reed met
people who allowed him to stay with them. He took a job at a carwash
making about $20 a week, which he used to pay for lodging and to wash
his clothes. "Those days were learning days before the recordings," he
says. "I learned how nice people could be and learned responsibility. I
learned that it is better to be honest than dishonest."
In 1953, Reed says, he started a group of harmonizing street singers
with three other men - Joe Jefferson, Cornell Gunther, and Alex Hodge -
and he picked the name The Platters, inspired by disc jockeys who called
records "platters." None of them played any instruments, but they could
sing, mostly popular songs of the day. With Reed singing lead, they won
first place at amateur shows around Los Angeles. Soon after, David Lynch
replaced Jefferson, and Tony Williams replaced Gunther and became the
group's lead singer. They drove up and down the California coast,
performing and making a few dollars, which they would split and use for
gas money. In late 1953, they met a business-wise songwriter from
Chicago named Buck Ram, who became their manager. The following year,
Paul Robi replaced Hodge, and they added a female singer, Zola Taylor.
The Platters signed a recording contract with Mercury Records in 1955,
and the group started accumulating hit singles.
But with the nation still divided by color lines, the fame was
bittersweet for Reed. The group had to carry weapons for protection as
they traveled by bus through the South, where the Ku Klux Klan would try
to intimidate them and prevent them from performing, says Fred Balboni,
Reed's current manager. "Success was unbelievable," Reed says. "But it
still wasn't something that made you feel important. You still didn't
have that feeling, because you knew that after the party was over, you
were still black in America."
By the 1960s, Reed says, the group fractured: Williams tried to go solo,
Taylor married, Lynch started selling furniture, and Robi pursued other
ventures. Reed continued performing, finding replacement singers in
auditions across the country. "I just kept on trucking," he says. "I
never stopped." The Platters recorded nearly 400 songs, toured in 91
countries, and sold more than 100 million records. In 1990, the group
was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Other groups that called themselves The Platters started emerging in the
1970s, around the time that Reed moved to Arlington because he liked the
weather and the people. Six years ago, he sued a Lawrence producer for
advertising a show featuring a group called "The Platters." A federal
judge ruled in Reed's favor, and the copycat Platters were taken off the
show. "So they took off The Platters and they became The Coasters," says
Gale Stewart, Reed's personal assistant. "And The Coasters don't have a
female in their group, but they did that night."
To avoid being mistaken for an impostor, Reed now bills himself as "Herb
Reed & The Platters." He says he doesn't acknowledge any musical group
without at least one original member for one main reason: "They had
nothing to do with the recording success of the group."
A VERSION OF THE so-called Truth in Music bill has been passed in
Pennsylvania, Connecticut, South Carolina, North Dakota, and Illinois.
It is pending in Massachusetts, New York, Delaware, and Michigan, and
gaining momentum in 10 other states. In Massachusetts, the bill would
allow the attorney general to stop an impostor-band performance with an
injunction, and violators could be fined from $5,000 to $15,000. The
proposal allows for tribute or cover bands, but other groups must have
at least one original member to be considered legitimate. House
lawmakers may vote on the bill as early as January.
One critic of the bill is Jean L. Bennett, who was in charge of public
relations for Buck Ram in the 1950s and helped The Platters with
promotions during that time. The 83-year-old now lives in Las Vegas,
where she runs Five Platters Inc., the production company Ram formed in
1956. The company, she says, still owns the rights to use "The Platters"
name. Ram died in 1991, and Bennett started the Buck Ram Platters -
which performs mainly in Las Vegas - in honor of Ram, who wrote,
arranged, and produced the group's music for decades in addition to
being its manager. She also licensed the name to a New York production
company that created The World Famous Platters and several other
versions. "If it wasn't for Buck Ram, they would never have lasted," she
says of The Platters. "These kids couldn't have gotten to first base
without his instruction and his help. We carried on the legacy of The
That's not how Reed sees it. He disputes Bennett's claims that her
company owns the name. And while Reed's manager agrees that Ram's
contributions were invaluable, he says they would have been pointless
without Reed. "Buck Ram did have the business savvy that they didn't
have," Balboni says of The Platters. "However, it was Herb that actually
steered the group."
Bennett admits that the imitation groups are getting out of control, as
more and more spring up every year without the legal rights to use the
name. But she doesn't think the Truth in Music bill is fair, because,
she says, it makes no sense to allow a group to perform only if it has
at least one original member. "That's impossible," Bennett says. "What
happens when they all die? When Herbie Reed is gone and no one can use
it, that's it? The legacy should go on legitimately through whoever
maintains that name and owns it through an early connection."
Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat who sponsored the bill in
Massachusetts, calls the proposal a consumer protection bill that keeps
ticket buyers from getting "ripped off." He says tribute groups would be
allowed, because "people would know when they bought their tickets that
they won't see the real Platters."
Jon Bauman, also known as "Bowzer" from the group Sha Na Na, has been
heading the Truth in Music campaign from the Vocal Group Hall of Fame
Foundation in Sharon, Pennsylvania. "It's really been awful to watch
[musicians] struggle with this problem for so long, when they're the
people who created this music that really changed the world," says
Bauman, who lives in Los Angeles. "You're talking about a time, 50 years
ago, when this music started, people were drinking from separate
drinking fountains and riding on the backs of buses." Bauman hopes the
legislation will encourage promoters and venues to start policing
themselves to avoid involvement by state authorities.
The legal battles took a physical toll on Carl Gardner, an original
member of The Coasters. The 78-year-old, now living in Port St. Lucie,
Florida, had a stroke in 2004, largely due to the stress of court cases
over impostor bands, says Veta Gardner, his wife and manager. "He's
tired of all the fighting," she says. "In the early days, these guys
didn't make any money, and here it is, they should be on the
Mediterranean somewhere getting big royalties in a nice yacht, and
instead of this someone is stealing their money, stealing their
identity." His doctor told him to take it easy, but he continues to work
on a new collaboration album with his 51-year-old son, also named Carl,
to keep his legacy alive. "I'm going to fight till the very end," the
elder musician says. "We will rise again. We will return."
Herb Reed believes there is little else he can do but continue to
entertain people and stay as close to the original sound as possible.
"I'm not shooting for any new stars," he says. "I'm content in knowing
what I've done and done honestly and that I am an honest man who's still
making a living singing some of the music I helped to make famous."
© 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.
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