The Great Pretenders

Everyone borrows, especially the Platters

We're all derivative: the buildings we build, the way we talk, the songs we sing are all taken from or influenced by someone or something else. In music, this is simply accepted science. Guitar wizards have done it for decades without resorting to lawsuits—witness Scotty Moore Xeroxing Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, then Cheap Trick and Dave Alvin ripping off the Johnny Burnette Trio several decades later. Sometimes, it's homage. But where it gets a little weird—weirder than such all-out tribute bands as Wild Child (the Doors) and Atomic Punks (Van Halen)—is with the so-called original bands that aren't. Like the Platters Live, which play the Mission at San Juan Capistrano on Saturday night. Simply put, it has no Platters.

Three of the original five have gone to the great street corner in the sky, Platters Live lead tenor Elmer Armstrong says in an interview from Ventura. The other two—Herb Reed and Zola Taylor—are bona fide AARP members—and they're not in Armstrong's band. For several reasons.

"Herb is in his 70s, and the group sounds like it," Armstrong said, his mellow tenor not sounding venomous at all. "We do it and sound like 1958. We do the songs in their original key. That's one thing that separates us from these other groups. I watched how Paul did it, and I try to present it the same way."

That's great. Except that it hasn't been 1958 for 46 years now, and no one—no movie producer, no car club, no architect—has figured out how to turn back time. Except Armstrong? His influence, he tells me, is this Paul who helps him reel in the years: Paul Robi, who joined the group as a replacement singer for an original member back in 1954, before eventually going his own way.

Before his death in 1989, Robi was one of the longest-standing Platters practitioners, perhaps deservedly so. Their hits are, and should always be, the stuff of legend.

"All the hits," Armstrong said, describing his group's current set list. They're one of literally a dozen "Platters" worldwide.

"We start off with 'Only You.' Then we go into 'Twilight Time,' 'He's Mine,' 'Harbor Lights,'" he continued. "Then we segue into—we go into a thing where we do songs from other groups. And then we do more of [our own] hits."

So we'll always have the hits. What no one realizes—not Robi, not Armstrong, not even Herb Reed, whose website, www.theplatters.com, stalks all the bands that don't have original Platters, Armstrong's group included—is that we haven't had the Platters for eons. Not since cars had fins. Which makes it interesting to reflect that the Platters Live's Orange County show is sold out. Armstrong and I share a moment reflecting on the stupidity of the American public, buying into all the really terrible Platters imitators out there. His band, he says—himself and Lavan Davis on lead tenor, Kathy Celsy on soprano and alto, and Benjamin Mitchell on bass—is not in that number.

"Herb was the original bass singer, and B.J. is an even better singer than Herb was," Armstrong said of Mitchell, using the man's nickname. So his band is the good Platters; maybe they're even the Good Platters. They're just not the Platters.

The Platters Live play at the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, Ortega Hwy. & Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 234-1300; www.missionsjc.com. SAT., 6:30 p.m. sold out. ALL AGES.
 
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