Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Doo Gooder

With a name like Anthony Portantino and birthplace like New Jersey, you might think this guy once sang with Dion and the Belmonts, down on the corner, under the street lights.

But this Portantino is more Democrat than Doo Wop. If you want to catch his act, you'll have to go to Sacramento where he performs as the state Assembly member from La Canada Flintridge, a city he once served as mayor.

Portantino may nonetheless find himself forever linked to golden oldies if his bill, AB702, is signed into law.

That piece of legislation, called "the truth in music advertising act, would make it harder for musicians to advertise themselves as a famous group from the past unless they had trademarked the name or at least one of its members was an original member.

So while the state grapples with health care crisis, global warming and budget woes, should we care if there's one too many versions of the Drifters up on stage?
Damn right we should.

Because it's all about two things Americans hate: cheating and stealing.
On any given night in this country, some group of yokels in riding the nostalgia wave by pretending to be one of the fabled groups of the 50s and 60s.
The Coasters, the Platters, the Drifters, the Diamonds, the Vogues, the Marvelletes are hitting the oldies circuit and raking in the bucks.

According to one source, there are dozens of groups calling themselves the Coasters, the Drifters or the Platters. Many of these guys are about as close to the originals as the Rolling Stones are to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

"When these guys stand on stage and say 'When we recorded this song in the '50s,' 'When we won our Grammy,' 'When we sang on the street corner,' and they're 22 years old? Come on," Bob Crosby, president of the nonprofit Vocal Hall of Fame, said in a published interview. "They're lying.

"It's no harmless illusion, either, he said. "All these fake groups are out there stealing incomes, history and applause."

And they get away with it. That's because it's not always easy to tell who holds the rights to a particular musical group's name or to identify an authentic member of an act formed 50 years ago, according the the website Law.com.

Singers then were often recruited by managers or producers who didn't afford young vocalists, often poor African-Americans, the legal protections more commonly available today. Members came and went before the visibility that, in the MTV era, cemented band members' identities with a group. Trademarks were sold, sometimes under less than legal conditions. Squabbles and lawsuits over group names continue.

The Vocal Hall of Fame's Crosby and Jon Bauman, better known as Bowzer from the nostalgia group Sha Na Na, are spearheading a nationwide effort to reign in unauthorized imposter groups.

"This is a sophisticated form of identity theft," said Bauman. "These imposter groups have been duping consumers and stealing the names, the remuneration and the legacy of the pioneers of Rock n Roll for way too long."

So far, nine states have passed similar measures and eleven others are considering legislation.

While we may have more important issues to occupy us, this effort is important because the doo wop and R and B music of the 50s and 60s was more than just dance tunes. It was in its own simple way a powerful force, a music that brought races together, one that influenced generations of Americans, one that changed the world.
It's artists and architects deserve our protection.

Besides, as Crosby says: "If you want a gut-wrenching experience, try watching a baby boomer audience leap to its feet at the end of an impostor group show. The audience so clearly thinks it's honoring the body of work, the legacy, the deep pleasure this music has given them since their youth... "They don't know they're applauding the wrong people..."

Despite what the Platters sang in the 1950s, there are no great pretenders.

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