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Say Goodnight, Sweetheart, to this unnecessary bill

Ever go to a concert of four guys named John, Paul, George and Ringo and find out -- shocker of shockers -- they're not the real Beatles?

If state Rep. Joe Atkins gets his way, the Minnesota attorney general will be able to unplug their amps and bust them on criminal fraud charges, no matter how many times they yell "Help!"

"The goal of the bill is just to get fans what they pay for," the Inver Grove Heights DFLer told the News Tribune's editorial page staff Friday. Dubbed the "Truth in Music Advertising Act," Atkins' bill would make it a criminal misdemeanor to advertise or conduct a concert featuring a "false, deceptive or misleading affiliation" between a musical group and a more famous recording group.

Though rock 'n roll identity theft is hardly the biggest threat to public safety in Minnesota, Atkins said it's a genuine problem that's difficult to prosecute under existing fraud laws. Take the experiences of Minnesota-based backup player Steve "Cocktail Stevie" Swenson, for example.

"He was playing once when in came the Drifters," Atkins said. "One of the guys said, 'So who are we tonight?' The following night they were the Coasters. Then they were the Platters.

"The most ingenious ones have the 'old guy,' who just stands there and doesn't say anything," Atkins continued, explaining the trick is for fans to assume the geezer is an original member of the group.

A more famous old guy who interrupted his cruise ship performance schedule to testify in St. Paul in favor of the bill is Jon Bauman, aka Bowzer, formerly of Sha Na Na. Heading a national "Truth in Music" effort, he called the impostor concerts a "sophisticated form of identity theft" capable of tricking even the most die-hard fans.

But wait a minute. Wasn't Sha Na Na's biggest hit "Good Night, Sweetheart (It's Time to Go)" -- a cover of the Spaniels' signature song from a generation before?

According to a Washington Post obituary, the Spaniels' James "Pokie" Hudson, who died in January, received only $800 for his 1954 hit until finally regaining the writing credit in the 1990s. By then, it had long been a standard for Sha Na Na. Though the band made a fortune from it, legally Sha Na Na had done nothing wrong with the demise of the Spaniels' label and rights holder, Vee Jay Records, in the 1960s.

"I'm extremely [ticked] off," the Spaniels' Don Porter told Boston Herald columnist Paul Sullivan in 2000. Though he didn't mention Sha Na Na by name, he complained, "[Other musicians] take your talent and your name and get all the credit, and there's no recourse in the legal system."

Maybe that is a matter for the attorney general, but if so, it's to settle the internecine squabbles between performers, not to act as a policeman to protect consumers from the old guy playing at a Beach Boys concert. And since nearly all concerts sell some tickets through the mail, federal mail fraud laws that have successfully nabbed everyone from hit men to tax evaders should work just fine.

For his part, Atkins was unaware of the discography behind "Goodnight, Sweetheart." "That's ironic," he said. "Maybe I'll poke [Bowzer] a little on that."

That would be interesting. As for the bill, it's time to go -- and drop it.

Disclosure: Don Porter of the doo-wop group the Spaniels is a third cousin to News Tribune Editorial Page Editor Robin Washington.