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Bowzer fights against musical imposters

As the rubber-faced frontman for Sha Na Na, Jon “Bowzer” Bauman brought doo-wop to the hippies at Woodstock. During the days of disco, he took his ’50s schtick to TV.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the rubber-faced frontman for Sha Na Na, Jon “Bowzer” Bauman brought doo-wop to the hippies at Woodstock. During the days of disco, he took his ’50s schtick to TV.

Now, nearly 60 years old, Bauman is still championing the golden age of rock-n-roll, this time as point man for a push to keep impostors from ripping off his musical heroes.

He’s been lobbying states on behalf of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame for laws to prevent phonies and fakers from passing themselves off as authentic members of groups like the Platters, the Coasters and the Drifters.

Tennessee’s legislature passed Bauman’s “Truth in Music” bill Thursday, and it now goes to the governor. Nine other states have already enacted the law; two more are also waiting for the governors’ signatures.

Bauman says dozens of acts with no connection to the authentic groups perform under their name, misleading fans and stealing the income and glory due surviving members.

“For the people who made this music to be suffering this indignity at this point in their life when they should be recognized as pioneers is just heartbreaking,” said Bauman, chairman of the hall’s Truth in Music Committee.

The law he helped enact requires that for a group to call itself by a successful name from the past it has to have at least one member of that group and be legally entitled to the name.

Bauman and others have been working on this issue for about 10 years. They first tried changing federal trademark law. When that failed, they approached it from a consumer protection issue, one state at a time.

His interest stems from the music that inspired Sha Na Na to form at Columbia University in 1969. With slicked back hair and a muscle shirt, he became famous mimicking the singers he’s now trying to protect.

“In some ways I think we were more successful than the original artists because of the time. It was later in the game and conditions had improved so much. So many of these people were in a maverick business. They were ripped off by record companies and managers and nobody protected the names properly,” Bauman said.

Doo-wop wasn’t that distant when Sha Na Na performed at Woodstock, but in the musical and social context of the late ’60s, it must have seemed a quaint anachronism.

Singers were often faceless, and vulnerableThe original singers — mostly black men recording songs marketed to white teenagers — were faceless to the public, making them vulnerable to unscrupulous promoters, agents and performers now capitalizing on their name.

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“It has stopped me from working,” said Herb Reed, founder of the Platters, 1990 inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I used to pick and choose. Now I have to take whatever I can get because they’re out there calling themselves the Platters.”

Reed says the impostors perform for far less than the real groups, diluting the market and hurting his livelihood.

“They don’t have the correct uniforms; they don’t have the correct sound. They’re using our name, using our music. They’ve demeaned everything we worked for,” he said, estimating he’s spent close to $1 million on lawsuits trying to stop them.

Bauman calls it a sophisticated form of identity theft and has spent his time and money fighting it. Between his own performances — he left Sha Na Na in 1983 and does about 75 dates a year as a solo act — and his volunteer work for the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, he’s on the road all the time.

A recent stretch looked like this: New Jersey for a court hearing, California for a show, Florida to meet with lawmakers, Nashville for a legislative hearing, Michigan for another show, then out to Nevada to meet with lawmakers and perform in a show.

On Thursday, moments after the Tennessee House had passed the “Truth in Music” bill unanimously, he was jubilant. He even paused to do the silly deep-voice intro to the old Marcell’s hit “Blue Moon” for a star-struck government official.

“I feel really invigorated and vitalized,” Bauman said. “We are succeeding. And this is something that needs to be done.”