Best Of '99: Name Game Leads To Messy Litigation For Musicians

Performers say impostors and former bandmates are costing them millions; new law would offer more protection.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Monday, April 12.]

It reads like a novel — twin brother vs. twin brother in a battle

for property. There's agony. There's rock 'n' roll. And there's just one

name to go around: Gene Loves Jezebel.

"It's not very easy to copy what we do," an audibly frustrated Jay Aston,

the British goth-rock band's primary songwriter, said Wednesday from a

motel room outside San Francisco. The accused copycat? Aston's brother,

Michael, with whom he formed the band in 1980 and who then formed his

own, competing with Gene Loves Jezebel in 1996 after the two had a falling out.

The competition between the two bands has cost the original Gene Loves

Jezebel an average of $2,000 per night in the United States due to

booking agents' confusion and fan uncertainty, Jay Aston said.

"It's a unique thing we have," he said. "The fact that people are walking

away with a different image of us just kills me."

Aston is not alone in his frustration. Many musicians, including founding

members of Bad Company and 1950s vocals group the Platters, have had

difficulty protecting their trademarks. Proposed federal legislation

that was introduced in the House of Representatives this week may give

them some relief.

The Truth In Rock Act would amend existing trademark law by tripling the

financial penalties for misusing band names and by making it easier for

performers to sue over the inappropriate use of their trademarks. It also

would allow former members of groups to legally bill themselves as just

that without fear of litigation.

"I knew the time was right to do this," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio,

the former mayor of Cleveland who along with Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga.,

wrote the bill. "People are astonished to find out what exactly is going

on."

The name games Kucinich's bill targets are abundant and often chaotic.

Earlier this decade at a festival in Canada, Danny and the Juniors, who

became famous in the late 1950s for their single "At the Hop"

(RealAudio

excerpt), apparently opened for themselves, according to original group

member Joe Terry. Terry said he and bandmate Frank Maffei have been

chasing impostors in Boston, Las Vegas and Los Angeles for years.

"It creates a tremendous problem," Terry, 59, said. "It dilutes the

industry for our bands. It confuses the public."

Terry's Danny and the Juniors used to play 250 shows per year. Over the

past decade that number has shrunk to 100.

Harrah's Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., this week is advertising a triple

bill featuring 1950s vocals groups the Drifters, the Platters and the

Coasters. That may sound lofty, but none of the onstage performers are

originals, according to Joyce Moore, an artist manager who is among the

chief proponents of the bill's passage. Instead, they all are singers

hired to perform those groups' most famous selections.

The manager for those acts, a Brooklyn-based promoter named Lawrence

Marshak, raised the ire of Moore and Terry. Marshak, they said, established

business relationships with former members of the original groups and

the members' widows, and then parlayed that into a less-than-forthright

franchise. Terry said Marshak employs 24 separate sets of phony Coasters,

Drifters and Platters.

"There's only so many jobs out there for groups of this genre," Moore

said. "It's quite frightening. [Impostor bands] have lowered the pay

standard."

Marshak did not return numerous phone messages seeking comment.

Moore has a vested interest in the issue. Her husband, Sam Moore, was

half of Sam and Dave, the soul duo that scored a top-five hit with "Soul

Man" in 1967. When Dave Prater, who was killed in a car accident in 1988,

decided in the mid-1970s to tour as Sam and Dave without Moore's

permission, a decade-long legal battle began. The subsequent

legal bills cost the Moores their Southern California home. They now

live in the relatively modest surroundings of Scottsdale, Ariz.

The trademark battles between bandmates extend beyond the acts that

defined early rock 'n' roll. Bad Company, the 1970s arena rock band whose

songs such as "Bad Company" (RealAudio

excerpt) and "Feel Like Makin' Love" (RealAudio

excerpt) are staples of classic rock radio, are enduring a

headache of their own.

On April 16, according to the Orlando Sentinel, Bad Company are

scheduled to play the House of Blues in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The next

month, on May 21, Bad Company are to play Orlando's Hard Rock Cafe. The

same band in the same market 35 days apart?

Actually, former Bad Company lead singer Brian Howe is set to play the

House of Blues, while the original Bad Company, which includes founder

Paul Rodgers, play the Hard Rock.

Fran Miller, an attorney who represents the band, said Howe has not lived

up to a 1994 agreement with bandmembers Simon Kirke and Mick Ralphs to

bill himself only as the group's former singer. Vincent Wolanin, Howe's

manager, said Ralphs and Kirke are jealous of Howe's ability to maintain

his career and that Howe has never willfully billed himself as anything

other than Brian Howe.

Rodgers seemed to blame himself. "I should have never let it go," said

Rodgers, the original owner of the Bad Company trademark. "They've

created their own monster here. And I seem to have inherited the situation."

When Bad Company disbanded in 1982, Rodgers allowed Atlantic Records to

use the trademark, which came into play in 1986 when the band re-formed

with Howe as singer.

The Truth In Rock Act may or may not prove to be the elixir that Bad

Company are looking for, but Kucinich said it is designed with the

interests of fans in mind.

Marshak has been quoted in other publications as saying fans don't care

if performers are genuine or not. Kucinich said his constituents in the

neighborhood around the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame disagree with Marshak.

The bill is being considered now by the House's Subcommittee on Intellectual

Property and could be voted on by the entire House by the end of the year.

In some sense, Herb Reed, who founded the Platters in 1953, is already

approaching closure on a 30-year chapter of fights over the Platters'

name with former groupmates and managers. Last week the federal Ninth

Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that Reed held exclusive

rights to the band trademark. The court, according to Reed, decided that

since Reed never left the group, the name is his to protect.

Reed still performs and is preparing to file a lawsuit seeking an

injunction against Marshak. He expressed hope that one day he would

again play Harrah's Casino and be clear of the 18 impostor-Platters

groups he said exist.

"It infuriates you," he said. "It's like bottling yourself and calling

yourself Coke."