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For Bill Haley sidemen, rock around the court. Later Comets sue to stop originals from using name
These should be happy days for five surviving members of one of the world's oldest oldies bands. But this is South Jersey, daddy-o, and, lately, things are getting crazy man, crazy. Dig it: In Wildwood, the guys are getting honored with a plaque this weekend on the 50th anniversary of the first public playing of rock and roll's first number-one hit: "On this corner stood the HofBrau Hotel, where in the summer of 1954, singer Bill Haley and his band, the Comets - Joey D'Ambrosio, Franny Beecher, Johnny Grande, Marshall Lytle, Dick Richards and Billy Williamson - introduced the landmark song 'Rock Around the Clock.' " In Camden, meanwhile, the fellas - median age 76 - are getting socked with a lawsuit.
Two members of Haley's bands from the 1960s and 1970s have asked a federal judge to stop the 1950s-era Comets from using the band's name. The suit was filed Oct. 1.
The younger Comets - led by 58-year-old John "Bam Bam" Lane, who joined the band as drummer in 1964 - say they own the trademark. Lane and former band member Al Rappa acquired the mark in 1989, eight years after Haley died, according to their lawsuit. "It's a strange situation," said Lane, who lives in Woodbine, Cape May County. Lane said that after Haley retired in the mid-1970s, he continued to tour the Comets with the rocker's permission. Lane said he obtained the trademark to protect himself and Haley's legacy. "I sent letters out to all the former Comets about the trademark application, and only two called me back - not these older guys," Lane said. "Then a few years later, these guys pop up and start playing. At first, it was only a couple of shows over the years. Our lawyers would contact them and they would change their billing to the '55 Comets or something. I didn't care about that." In recent years, however, the elder Comets began booking shows at a faster clip, including overseas performances. They've even released new albums, with new songs, like "Viagra Rock": If you're drifting over the hill
Get yourself that miracle pill. . Do the Viagra rock. Do the Viagra roll.
If you're getting up in age Grab the pill that is the rage. The younger Comets' manager, Neal Hollander, is not amused. He said the older group's persistence has created public confusion and cut into his group's business. "They're not very good, either," Lane said. "They sound terrible."
Lane, who said he appeared on more than 60 Haley tracks, said he's particular angry about growing trash talk between the two groups. "They've gotten so arrogant and adamant about it," he said. "It's really irritating. I can't take it anymore. They've really bad-mouthed me, calling me a wannabe." Indeed. Several of the Comets, including 80-year-old drummer Richards, did not mask their distaste for the younger Comets.
"They're phony bastards," said Richards, who lives in Ocean City. "They're bilking something they were not part of." Lytle, the 71-year-old bassist, said, "[The younger Comets] have always used intimidation and threats against us, and I've always said, 'Go ahead and sue.' Maybe now a judge will decide who are the real Comets and who are the phonies." Besides, he added, he's seen them the play, and "they're pretty bad." "They don't sound anything like the original, because they aren't the original," he said. "We sound just like we did 50 years ago." Lytle, who now lives near Tampa Bay, Fla., noted that most of the younger Comets never played with Haley. "To me, that's wrong," he said.
Lenny Longo, 50, the lead singer for the younger Comets, conceded that he never played with Haley, or even met the man. But it's irrelevant, said the Monroe County, Pa., resident. "Bill basically used hired guns most of his life," Longo said. He said that Lytle, Richards and others left Haley in the late '50s, following a money dispute. "I think it's wrong that these guys suddenly decided they wanted to be stars again after deserting Bill." Howard Kramer, the curatorial director of the Rock and Roll Fame of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, said it's true that Haley played with dozens of musicians over the years - including the five surviving members, D'Ambrosio, Beecher, Grande, Lytle and Richards. But it is also true, Kramer said, that most members of the elder Comets group were with Haley during the "crucial period" in the mid-1950s, when the band began playing "Rock Around the Clock," widely considered the first rock and roll song to be popularized by white musicians. Kramer called it "the Comets' heyday," when the band, formed near Chester, Pa., also released "Crazy Man, Crazy"; "Rock the Joint"; "Now Dig This"; "Shake, Rattle and Roll"; and "See You Later, Alligator." The case has been assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge Joseph E. Irenas, who was a teenager when Haley's greatest hits were released. Irenas will have to examine several legal issues, beyond whether the trademark the younger Comets obtained in 1989 is valid. "Trademarks are about consumer confusion," said Thomas G. Field Jr., who teaches intellectual property law at the Franklin Pierce Law Center, a law school in Concord, N.H. "The key question is: Are you deceiving consumers? Some people think of trademark as if it's a piece of real estate, as in 'It's mine. Keep your damn paws off.' I tend to think the owner of a trademark is more like a trustee for the public. There are plenty of Supreme Court cases that say if the public is not being deceived that the speech is OK." The elder Comets have been careful, at times, to call themselves the "Original Comets," not "Bill Haley's Comets." But often, Lane said, they blur the line on stage or in interviews, or a venue advertises them as "Bill Haley's Comets." However, simply billing themselves as "Bill Haley's Original Comets" might not be enough, said former federal judge Stephen Orlofsky, a Cherry Hill lawyer with the firm Blank Rome. "If the trademark is valid, they'll have a problem with that," he predicted.
Trademark disputes such as the one in the Comets' case are becoming more common because "there is a lot of money to be made from these '50s and '60s groups, and the baby boomers want to hear that sound again," said Jonathan Hudis, an Alexandria, Va., lawyer and board member of the American Intellectual Property Law Association. Legal issues aside, one of Haley's sons, John A. Haley of Salem, N.J., said he "can't believe" the younger Comets filed a lawsuit. "If it wasn't for the original guys, these guys wouldn't be playing music under the name Comets at all," he said. "The original guys are in their 70s and 80s, and they're not going to be doing it much longer. Why not let them have their glory?" Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 856-779-3857 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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