It was 1970. Wilson was a wiry 20-year-old from 173rd and Lee Road with a tender tenor and bottomless promise.
Paramount Records had just offered his R&B trio, Sly, Slick and Wicked, a record deal. Wilson was too young, too delirious to scrutinize the contract. "Making music was the only thing I ever wanted to do," he says. "I had no backup plan, really."
The group's first single, "Stay My Love," a composite of shake-your-booty beats, lush strings, and vocal harmonies reminiscent of the O'Jays, hit the Top 10 on the R&B charts.
Over the next three years, he would see his name on marquees from New York to London, tour with James Brown, record for Motown and Epic, and appear on Soul Train.
The fame wouldn't last, of course. Music recycles its fashions faster than the clearance racks at Target. By the end of the decade, the phone stopped ringing with record deals, concert dates, interview requests. Sold-out tours devolved into rib cook-offs and cruise-ship dates.
When you're 20, you don't prepare for this. You trust the smiling record execs with their incomprehensible paperwork, only to wake up one day to discover that tree pulp has taken everything you've built. "For performers back then, the industry standard was 5 percent [of all profits]," Wilson says. "So, you signed the contract and figured it was legit. Little did you know what that really meant or how it would screw you."
Though Sly, Slick and Wicked recorded more than 30 songs on four major labels -- including at least 3 that made the R&B charts -- Wilson's earnings can literally be measured in dimes.
"The only check I got from the recording industry was for 93 cents," he says. "Even when I call the labels to see what I'm still owed, I can't get anyone on the phone. And I don't have the means to sue them to find out if there's more."
So the band was forced to continue touring, though few people would pay to see old men croon about love. "I don't care if you were Kool & the Gang," Wilson says. "Through the '80s and '90s, the gigs really dried up for most R&B acts. But we kept performing, because we had to, to survive."
Yet the fiscal indiscretions of youth would again come back to haunt him.
In 1995, Wilson was driving through Hollywood when he heard a radio ad for a Sly, Slick and Wicked concert at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. "I was totally stunned," he says. "I actually got excited, thinking, 'We got that gig?'"
But Wilson wouldn't be performing that night. Instead, a group of impostors took the stage. Not a single one had ever belonged to Sly, Slick and Wicked. But they were making money off the name that Wilson had built, and it was all perfectly legal.
Welcome to the world of fraudulent old-school R&B, where fake Coasters and bogus Supremes are ripping off people nightly -- and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it.
Visit slyslickandwicked.com, and you will find nothing about John Wilson, Cleveland, or the hits on Paramount.
Instead, the site offers a brief biography of Thomas Hawkins, a Texan who goes by the stage name "Sonny Daye" and claims to have started Sly, Slick and Wicked.
There's specious evidence to back his claim: a few old glossies of a seven-piece, mostly Latino band called Sly, Slick, Wicked and the Bad Boys; a self-released album, supposedly from 1972.
Still, Hawkins was landing shows alongside big-name acts like War, the Manhattans, and Barbara Manning -- folks Wilson rubbed elbows with decades ago.
Wilson was convinced that Hawkins was simply deceiving promoters. So he called the fake band's agent, Allen Beck, offering the real group's services.
Beck insisted that Hawkins wasn't performing Wilson's music. (He didn't respond to Scene's interview requests.)
"We are an entirely different group," says Hawkins' wife and manager, Rita. "Wilson's group is more like the O'Jays, and my husband's group is more funky, like West Coast. They are two different things."
Wilson knew, however, that people were paying good money to see the genuine article, not impostors. The band should at least stop using his name. Hawkins refused. Wilson sued.
It seemed an open-and-shut case. Wilson had decades of albums, awards, and newspaper clippings as evidence. But Hawkins had a major trump card. In 1995, he trademarked the name "Sly, Slick and Wicked" with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Though it seems a foolish oversight today, Wilson came to fame in pre-litigation America, when musicians cared little about legal niceties. He'd never thought to get a trademark, because it hadn't occurred to him that someone might steal his name.
In the eyes of the law, however, paperwork is God. Wilson lost the suit.
Now, at age 56, he's barred from performing under the name he made famous.
"The court made its decision," Rita Hawkins says. "My husband had exclusive rights to the name. John Wilson can still perform. We aren't hurting him. People don't confuse the two groups. He really has to drop the issue and move on with his life. Why can't he just move on?"
But that's not so easy when you've endured decades of late nights and sleepless bus rides to build a name for yourself, only to see it stolen with a small piece of paper.
Asks Wilson: "Do you know what it's like to work all week and then have someone else collect your paycheck on Friday?"
Buying a trademark is as easy as purchasing a 40-ounce. All you need do is take the name of a famous band, take out a concert ad as proof that you're using the name, and put on a show. If the name isn't trademarked, it's all yours for the price of $335.
Mary Weiss also learned this the hard way. She was the lead singer of the Shangri-Las, the girl group that gave us "Leader of the Pack."
In the early '90s, Weiss got a call from Dick Fox, a New York oldies promoter. "He actually called Weiss and asked her, 'Are you gonna perform anymore?' Because if not, I'm gonna trademark your name and put a group out there,'" says Jon Bauman, chairman of the Truth in Music Board, a nonprofit that fights fake bands.
Weiss threatened to sue. Fox nonetheless put together a trio that included his wife, booked a show, and then used ads from the concert to trademark the Shangri-Las.
Weiss took him to court. In an odd ruling, an elderly judge sided with her, yet forced her to lease the name to Fox indefinitely.
Today, Weiss can't use the name she made famous, nor can she speak of the case.
"It's a sore subject, one that she can't go into," says Billy Miller, owner of Norton Records, which will release her newest CD in March.
Bauman called Fox to confront him. As he recalls, the conversation went like this:
"You pretend to be a music fan. How do you do this?"
"I know! I feel terrible about this!"
"But you still do it!"
"Yeah, on the one hand, I'm a fan," Fox replied. "On the other, I'm a businessman."
So is Larry Marshak.
For two decades, Carl Gardner, an original member of the Coasters, has been fighting him in court.
The Coasters, tongue-in-cheek '50s soulsters whose hits included "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown," were the first vocal group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But unlike many musicians of his era, Gardner trademarked the name, though the original group disbanded in 1962.
They were in Chicago when they overslept one morning and missed a flight to New York. The plane they were supposed to take crashed at LaGuardia. From then on, everyone but Gardner refused to fly.
"So they parted ways," says his wife, Veta. "The others went back to California, and Carl hired people to replace them."
But Gardner's success had been created by the '50s lineup, so he granted original members the right to use the name too. Throughout the '80s and '90s, they returned to the road in droves, all calling themselves the Coasters.
Then one member, Bill Richards, decided to license his rights to Marshak, a New York agent. "[Marshak] just prostituted the name," Veta says. "He was sending all these unrelated people out to perform [as the Coasters]. When Bill found out, he immediately terminated the agreement."
But that didn't stop Marshak. He simply went to another former member, Billy Guy.
"Billy told us [Marshak] offered him $40,000," Veta says. "He said he told [Marshak] to go to hell. But then we discovered Billy did take the money."
Soon after, the Coasters trademark was up for renewal. The other members didn't want to pay for it, so Gardner renewed it on his own. A judge also ruled that Billy Guy never had the right to license the trademark. "Now we knew we could go after Marshak," Veta says.
Gardner sued Marshak, who was ordered to pay $190,000 in damages. He coughed up $75,000 before filing for bankruptcy.
Then Marshak got wind that Cornell Gunther, a second-generation Coaster, was murdered in Las Vegas in 1990. He secured new rights from Gunther's sister, though she legally had none.
Sixteen years later, Marshak still manages at least five different versions of the Cornell Gunther Coasters -- though they include not a single real member. Every night of the year, one impostor group can be found performing at the Sahara in Las Vegas, while at least four other clones tour with aspartame versions of the Drifters, the Platters, and the Marvelettes.
(When Scene contacted Marshak on Rosh Hashanah, he asked the reporter to call back after the Jewish holiday. He never picked up the phone again.)
Marshak is known as the king of phony acts. With groups that precede MTV, it's an easy scam to pull. After so many years, no one knows what the real musicians look like anymore; people just love the songs. And Marshak can charge clubs next to nothing for his triple bills featuring fraudulent big names, undercutting authentic acts like Gardner's. While Gardner charges $10,000 a gig, Marshak's Coasters go for $1,000.
"A lot of promoters figure they can get the fakes for so much less, so who cares about the real thing?" says Chuck Anthony, a prominent casino booking agent. "But Marshak can keep doing it, because he's only paying his singers $250 a night, and they're young and sometimes better performers than the old guys. I mean, the girls he has as the Marvelettes are too young to know a real Marvelette, let alone be one. But he'll keep doing it, because he knows these guys are going to die soon."
Two years ago, 78-year-old Carl Gardner suffered a stroke. He's too tired and broke to keep fighting Marshak in court. "All this stress really took a toll on him," Veta says of her husband. "Many times he says to me, 'I don't give a shit about this business,' but [Carl] is the founder of the group, and he's never stopped performing, not even when he had throat cancer."
So she vows to fight on. "I will not stop until the last breath in my body, making sure this man is stopped."
Growing up in New York, Loni Clark always dreamed of being a singer just like her idols in the Supremes and the Marvelettes.
In 1986, she finally got her chance. A friend told her about an audition for a new Marvelettes group. "I knew all the songs, so I knew I could nail it."
For the next 16 years, Clark worked for Marshak as the lead singer in his fake Marvelettes. She got $250 a gig -- mostly off the books, she says.
While Clark was on the road, four other Marvelettes would tour at the same time, along with fake Drifters, Platters, and Coasters. Marshak ordered her to sign autographs and give interviews, pretending to be the original lead singer, she says. "He'd hand my phone number out to radio stations, and they'd call me up and ask me all these questions, like 'What was it like growing up in Detroit?' or 'What was it like hanging around the Motown house?' And my tongue was tied."
Whenever Clark asked for a raise, Marshak reminded her that he could always find "another black girl" to replace her.
"He has no compassion," she says. "He actually felt like you should be a happy colored person with a job."
Though Clark sympathizes with the original artists, to her it was just an honest day's work. "I didn't mean to do wrong by anybody," she says. "I never intended to pretend I was anything but what I was -- Loni Clark, who sang in the 'new' Marvelettes for 16 years."
Clark finally left Marshak in 2002. "I'm not going to say it was totally horrible. I got to travel all over the world, go places, and see things, like Japan and Brussels. That made it worth it."
Charlie Thomas has similar sentiments. "We were singing all those hits. I was seeing the world, and I was traveling and enjoying show business, making all sorts of friends."
Still, the 70-year-old has nothing to show for his years of toil. "Every time he talks of it, he cries," says Veta Gardner. "It's just horrible."
In 1958, Thomas was performing at the Apollo Theater's amateur night when he was scooped up by George Treadwell, the manager of the Drifters. Treadwell offered Thomas $100 a show, no royalties, and absolutely no stake in the group's trademark. Thomas took the job on the spot.
"We were just boys from the ghetto," says the Harlem native. "We were getting screwed all our lives."
It was the Charlie Thomas-led lineup that cemented the Drifters as one of the hottest soul groups in history. They were the first black group to hit the white pop charts with songs like "This Magic Moment," "Under the Boardwalk," "Up on the Roof," and "On Broadway."
When Treadwell died in 1967, the group essentially disbanded. Thomas was out of work.
Then, one day in the early '70s, Thomas got a call from Marshak. He wanted to put the Drifters back together. Thomas jumped on board.
Marshak began booking shows, earning Thomas $300 a gig. Things went smoothly until one day in the late '70s, when Marshak told him his salary was being cut. The excuse: Marshak's brother, Jody, was joining the business, and Marshak needed half of Thomas' wages to pay him.
"I figured something was wrong," Thomas says. "I mean, half my money? I couldn't live off that."
By that point, Thomas was the only real Drifter left in the band, responsible for teaching Marshak's random recruits all the songs and synchronized moves.
Thomas protested. Marshak responded by replacing him with a fake lead singer.
Thomas tried striking out on his own, but Marshak's no-name mercenaries undercut him across the country, leaving him penniless.
Then, in 1999, Treadwell's widow, Faye -- the sole owner of the Drifters trademark -- got wind of Marshak's antics and sued.
In 2001, a federal court finally barred Marshak from calling his group the Drifters. The same judge also ordered Marshak to hand over all profits to Treadwell's widow. But Marshak simply declared bankruptcy and closed shop, only to re-form under a new name. He continues to manage the Elsbury Hobbs Drifters, named after a deceased member.
"You're sweating blood for the audience, and then you got a man taking all your money when you should be on the top, and you're still at the bottom," Thomas says.
Herb Reed understands. He's the only living member of the original Platters, which churned out hits like "Only You" and "The Great Pretender," then watched as Marshak's bands toured the country under his name.
It's not just the loss of money that hurts, says Reed. It's what black musicians of his generation went through to build the bands being ripped off today.
"Do you know how much we suffered? How much prejudice?" he asks. "To have a [band] meeting at 1 p.m. and then say, 'Okay, nobody eat or drink a thing, because we're getting on the bus at 4 p.m.,' simply out of fear that the next service center would not let us use the restroom because we were black. And this is what I get for that sacrifice?"
Lawyer Cindy Salvo says she'll soon be filing a suit against Marshak on behalf of the Drifters. "Clearly, we have him on everything," Salvo says. "It's kind of impossible to determine how much money he's made . . . but the gravy train has to stop somewhere."
Jon Bauman, the chairman of Truth in Music, is also trying to stop impostor acts.
Since 2001, he's been pushing legislation to protect both acts and fans. The Truth in Music bill would allow only bands with at least one original member or a trademark to bill themselves as the real deal. "It's unfair to the consumer, when they spend their hard-earned money to see the real thing," Bauman says. "These aren't tribute bands. They are people posing as the real thing."
In Illinois, where the law passed in June, frauds can be slapped with fines of up to $15,000. The measure has passed in four other states and is awaiting approval in New York and Michigan. Bauman says that Ohio is the next big battleground. "Just the volume of shows you get in Cleveland alone makes your state a big concern for us," he says.
Still, the legislation will do nothing to help artists like Wilson, who are already screwed by trademark rules. His only protection is the discretion of his fans.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Wilson talks about a young Latino artist who approached him the other day. "I saw you, homes! I came down to your show and checked you out!" the kid told him.
"That wasn't me," Wilson responded.
"Those guys took my money, man?" the kid shouted. "Man, you want me to smoke those guys for you, homes?"
Wilson just laughed. "It was one of the most heartfelt things, to know people -- young people -- still care about us," he says. "They can take your trademark, but they can't take your history."