Rock and roll limbo
Every April the music industry gathers to induct a new set of stars into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The annual event evokes tremendous emotion, stoked by the nostalgia every American feels for looking back on the soundtrack of their lives.
This year is no different. Topping the list is Boston’s own Donna Summer, the late, great disco queen who set a generation of hips moving with such blockbusters as “Last Dance,” “She works Hard For The Money,” and “Bad Girls.” Just reading those titles triggers the sounds of whistles and images of flashing strobes in the minds of anyone who was young enough to dance the night away in the syncopated beat of the 1970s.
But the annual celebration disguises a tougher reality about the music business — the side that never gets highlighted at the Grammy Awards, the MTV Awards, the Hall of Fame induction, or any other event. This side is chronicled on the obituary page — the stories of fallen stars and hard times, forgotten talent, and stolen legacies.
For every Donna Summer who passes away in a single year, there are hundreds of unknowns whose names are obscure but whose talents once lit up the charts. Friends of mine like Motown writer Deke Richards, who passed away last month. He wrote “Love Child” for The Supremes and a string of hits for The Jackson 5.
In many ways, Deke was one of the lucky ones, his legacy protected by a solid contract. Another star, the late Herb Reed, founder of The Platters, who made Boston his home for decades, was widely recognized during his lifetime for his contributions to such hits as “The Great Pretender” and “Only You.” But he also spent years battling copy-cat groups who performed as The Platters before audiences who never quite connected the fact that the young singers on stage weren’t even born when Reed and his band-mates recorded the hits.
Reed, Pat Benti, another Bostonian, and I co-founded the nonprofit “FAME” to protect the legacies of original recording artists. Another FAME board member, Dennis Yost, lead singer on the Classics IV hits “Spooky” and “Stormy,” died penniless in 2008, the rights to his music and recordings long gone. Like so many artists who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, Yost was a better musician than intellectual property rights manager and lost access to royalties in contracts signed early in his career.
Efforts to regain some control of royalties are tied up in gray legal issues, with legions of copyright lawyers standing watch while we spend millions to try and correct the issues. Heightened awareness of copycat groups has helped cut down on the hordes of “great pretenders” out there, but they still persist. You might think it would be nearly impossible for a group of three singers to bill themselves as The Supremes, yet they pop up as regularly as spring crocuses.
In Massachusetts, the “Truth in Music” legislation allows the attorney general to stop imposter-band performances and levy fines; groups can perform as tribute bands as long as they do not say they were the ones who made those songs famous.
The plight of aging performers, who once made teenagers weep and swoon, has attracted much notice but not sufficient action. In his poem “Doo-Wop’’ John Updike wrote about “these old doo-wop stars you see / in purple tuxedos with mauve lapels / on public-television marathons . . . “Who knows / what two-bit gigs and muddled post-midnights / they bided their time in?”
As a girl from the Detroit projects, I did my share of two-bit gigs. When The Supremes were formed, we went from playing venues like Blinstrub’s in South Boston to going on The Ed Sullivan Show 15 times. Things were not always easy but my career in so many ways has been blessed.
But so many others still labor in the shadows — in rock and roll limbo — if they are lucky enough to perform at all. In Updike’s poem, he asks, “How have / they done it, come out whole the other side, / how did they do it, do it still, still doo?”
The tragic answer is that so many do not. The music lasts forever, but the stars just fade away.
Mary Wilson is an original member of The Supremes.