The Great Pretenders

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They’re defrauding the legends of soul — and it’s perfectly legal.

by

There was a time when people were screaming John Wilson’s name, clapping, begging, Bic-flicking for just one more song.

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.


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