Truth and Doo-Wop

Let us consider two great experiences of Western culture. One is viewing "Girl With a Pearl Earring," by the 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, which hangs in a museum in The Hague. The other is a performance of "Up on the Roof" by the 20th-century R&B group the Drifters. For that, you have many choices, including Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters and Charlie Thomas's Drifters, various "cover" bands (which do their own versions of classic hits), "tribute" bands (which mimic the original performances down to the white shoes) and a shadowy category of groups that perform under the original names and may benefit from the audience's assumption that at least one of the elderly gentlemen on stage once crooned the selfsame lyrics on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Fate decreed there would be only one Vermeer, but many Drifters—and Coasters and Platters and other rock groups from the era before MTV. "How many?" asks Jon Bauman rhetorically. "As many as you can pay for. On New Year's Eve, one in every city."

Bauman is better known as "Bowzer," the T-shirted lunk from Sha Na Na (the band in "Grease"). Now 59, he runs his own oldies shows and heads the Truth in Music committee of the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, crisscrossing the country at his own expense promoting laws to penalize bands who falsely advertise a connection to an earlier group. Nine states now have such laws—New Jersey was the most recent—and bills are awaiting signatures in seven more. Impostors are "a form of identity theft," he says, "against artists whose music changed the world. I look on this as an extension of the civil-rights movement."

To the dwindling cadre of doo-wop pioneers who can still snap their fingers without wincing, Bauman is a hero. "Jon is a dedicated soul," says Herb Reed of the first group to call itself the Platters. More than a half-century later Reed still sings bass as part of a group descended from the original Platters by a genealogy only slightly less convoluted than the Plantagenets'. "Those impostor groups are destroying the market for me," he says, competing for bookings by cutting their prices, so that in his late 70s he's down to a mere 180 dates a year.

But supporters of the Truth in Music bills are also positioning it as a consumer issue, appealing to a quirk of human nature that prizes authenticity above phenomenology. "Consumers are being confused," says Maxine Porter, manager of Bill Pinkney's Original Drifters. "There's a history, a specific identity with a name, and all that is part of the consumer's decision-making process." Economists struggle to understand this phenomenon. "Even well-established art experts are at a loss to explain why a (perfect) copy is considered so much less valuable than the original," Bruno S. Frey of the University of Zurich wrote in a 1999 paper. To return to Vermeer for a moment, most people will never see the original "Girl With a Pearl Earring," but last week a new Vermeer museum opened in Delft containing only reproductions. Or if you'd like a hand-painted copy on stretched canvas to "impress your friends," you can buy one online for as little as $155, compared with $100 million for the original. You could probably tell them apart, especially if you chose to supersize your copy—the original is just 16 by 18 inches, but you can have copies in sizes up to three feet by four feet. But would you be confident in your ability to know which was the Vermeer? And if not, then does it matter?

For that matter, how many casual R&B fans could pick out an original member of the Coasters from a distance? (That's a trick question; the last surviving original member, Carl Gardner, retired from touring recently after a stroke.) Early R&B groups were mostly faceless voices on the radio, in part because record companies weren't eager to remind audiences that their faces were usually black. And yet, in doo-wop as in painting, an undeniable aura clings to the authentic, the genuine, the original. Which is why if you go to a concert by the faux Drifters or a performance by the Platters manqué, you will always see, says Bauman, one guy in his 70s there so that you, the discerning doo-wop consumer, can nudge your seatmate and say, "That's the real one!"