The Imposters

Seeing a classic pop band in concert can be, among other things, perplexing. Diana Ross performed at Compaq Center in June in what was billed as a Supremes "Reunion Tour," but Ross never performed with the other two women supposedly sharing the bill. Real Supremes Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong were not part of the tour, and Supreme Florence Ballard is dead. Some reunion. Same with the Beach Boys. The band known as the Beach Boys performed at Buffalo Bayou Park on Independence Day, but only two official Boys, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, were there. Founding members Al Jardine and Brian Wilson have their own tours, and Wilson brothers Carl and Dennis are dead.

The confusion gets even thicker when it comes to seeing lesser-known acts like Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the Coasters, the Drifters, the Marvelettes and the Ink Spots. The artists you see attached to these names are mostly imposters, charlatans who never recorded a single song under the names they're using in concert. As for seeing the original group members, forget about it. In some cases the original members don't have the rights to use the names they made famous. "It's almost like we've gone back to the gold-rush days," says Mary Wilson, a founding member of the Supremes. "It's like [the names] are up for grabs."

Perhaps the most "up for grabs" name in pop is the Ink Spots. The band was an influential jive group and from the late '30s through the early '50s, one of the most popular acts in North America. Formed in the early '30s, the Original Ink Spots were founded by Jerry Daniels, Deek Watson, Orville "Hoppy" Jones and Charlie Fuqua. In 1936 Bill Kenny -- whose distinctive, shimmering tenor would catapult the group into superstardom with his version of the 1939 classic "If I Didn't Care" -- replaced Daniels. Throughout the '40s, the Ink Spots were a top draw that sold millions of records and concert tickets.

Today several bands still use the Ink Spots name and sing the songs Kenny and company made famous. None of these groups feature a member of the Original Ink Spots. The faux Spots also appropriate the Original Ink Spots' history in their promotional materials, which are usually riddled with factual errors. Some claim a direct lineage to the group when, in fact, they have none. "You must have someone in there who is old enough to claim that he was with Bill Kenny," says Huey Long, who played with Kenny's Ink Spots in the mid-1940s and has observed many imposter groups over the past five decades. "There's always an old man in there."

At 96, Long is the only Original Ink Spot known to still be alive. A Sealy native who now resides in Houston, Long has an impressive résumé, which includes stints with Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. In the 1960s Long formed his own version of the Ink Spots and spent about a year with them in California. Promoters at the time often insisted that at least one Ink Spot have some connection to Kenny, since an out-of-court settlement reached in 1945 declared Kenny the only person who could legitimately market a group as the Ink Spots.

"They could say I was from Bill Kenny," Long says of his '60s Ink Spots. "I had someone who imitated Bill Kenny. You had to do that. However, they would let [the audience] know I was from Bill Kenny. They all did the same thing. [Ink Spot] Billy Bowen did the same thing. [Ink Spot] Herb Kenny [Bill's brother] did the same thing. But then it became messy because it was break-offs off of break-offs. Then guys started claiming they were with Bill Kenny and all like that, and they didn't even know Bill Kenny."

The razor-sharp Long is almost obliged to let people know about the Original Ink Spots. He recently opened an Ink Spots studio in the Heights, where he sells memorabilia, recordings and other items from his 75-year career. When it comes to other groups calling themselves the Ink Spots, Long is quite the gentleman. "I don't knock them," he says. "When people call me about them, I say, "They should say the New Ink Spots, because so many people know they weren't really with Bill Kenny.' "

In the early '50s, different groups calling themselves the Ink Spots started popping up. Some had legitimate connections to the group. Others didn't.

Marv Goldberg, the author of the 1998 book More Than Words Can Say: The Ink Spots and Their Music, writes in an e-mail: "There are probably a dozen people around today who claim to have the sole right to use the [Ink Spots] name. There were many court cases in the '40s and '50s, when the "real' group and its immediate offshoots were still around. The original group was a partnership, not a corporation, and that influenced [Judge Isidore Wasservogel] to say, in 1955, that when Hoppy Jones died in 1944, it effectively served to terminate the partnership and that no one could truthfully use the name after that."

Ironically, the consequences of Wasservogel's verdict bear little resemblance to his intention. Since no one could legally lay claim to the Ink Spots' name, no one could file suit to prevent another person or group from using it. The name basically became part of the public domain. The Ink Spots, once owned by Kenny, Jones, Fuqua and Watson, is now owned by no one. It's used by anyone who wants it. At one time, according to Ink Spots historian Bill Proctor, there were purportedly at least 40 bands calling themselves the Ink Spots.

Names have simply become potential gold mines. Founding Beach Boy Jardine is embroiled in a court battle over the use of the Beach Boys name with Brother Records International. BRI is owned in equal shares by Jardine, Love, Brian Wilson and the estate of Carl Wilson and owns the Beach Boys trademark. "The company I own is suing me, which is interesting," says Jardine. "I'm paying for a quarter of my own lawsuit. Of course, I'm counterclaiming, which costs me another bundle, so I'm in a rather unique position. They got a restraining order against me from using the name that I helped to create." Love is the only Beach Boy BRI has licensed to use the name. The case is still pending.

While Jardine can't use a name he co-owns, members of the Coasters, the Vogues, the Drifters and the Marvelettes have discovered someone else owns their names. In some cases, the name was allowed to lapse and someone purchased the trademark. Promoter Larry Marshak owns the names the Coasters, the Drifters and the Marvelettes. On any given night he can roll out five groups of Coasters, a few Drifters combos and as many Marvelettes as he wants. He can and does prevent original members of these groups from using the names they made famous. It's legal, though only a lawyer would call it ethical.

So when all else fails, Congress steps in. Last year Friends Against Musical Exploitation, of which Mary Wilson is a part, gave testimony to the House of Representatives. FAME was helping draw attention to the bipartisan bill for the Truth in Rock Act, which would have allowed "an individual who had been a member of a group under a common famous name" to be able to use that name in the future, regardless of who owns the trademark. The bill died in committee. Wilson says FAME will attempt to get another, more comprehensive version of the bill passed.

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Paul J. MacArthur