“Oh-oh, yes I’m the great pretender,
Pretending that I’m doing well.
My need is such I pretend too much
I’m lonely but no one can tell.”
— Lyrics to “The Great Pretender”
BRANSON, Mo. — Lawrence Randle assumed he was taking a risk when he signed a two-year contract that landed The World Famous Platters here in 1995.
It was a reasonable assumption, because they would be the first black rock ‘n’ roll group to play a regular gig in this starkly white country music town.
There was Charley Pride, who takes credit for being the first black performer in Branson. But even he was country. The Platters were bringing a doo-wop sound and flashy gold jewelry to a place many saw as a heehaw and denim city.
The lyrics to the Platters’ trademark tune, “The Great Pretender,” were starting to sound like a metaphor for their own lives.
For starters, some might consider the singers to be pretenders themselves. The originals from the 1950s split long ago and sold off rights to the Platters’ name to groups like Mr. Randle’s.
But original or not, Mr. Randle says, the group was still testing uncharted waters in Branson.
“We were a black group performing in the Ozarks. It wasn’t supposed to jive,” Mr. Randle recalls. “The locals were making bets that we wouldn’t last six months.”
Five years later, The World Famous Platters are pretending their longevity here is no big deal.
“We knew from the start it would be a great place to live. Everything was so small and plain here,” says bass singer Eddie Stoval, who, with his Barry White physique and gold earrings, is anything but small and plain himself.
“Most of us had been living in big cities all of our lives, and here we are all of a sudden in a place where it’s friendly and safe. You can walk into the Wal-Mart and people wave and say, ‘Hello,”’ Mr. Stoval says. “I guess we always knew it would work out.”
Mr. Randle says the five-member group has never really been bothered by the fact that less than 1 percent of the population in Taney County is black.
“It’s kind of like living in a giant white suburb of Los Angeles. You learn to deal,” Mr. Randle says. “Besides, we don’t really think about race now. For us, being here is all about the music.”
The group packs close to 800 people a day into its shared theater to “relive the romance” — as the billboards promise. The Platters’ two nightly shows of 1950s-era rock are played at the Hughes Brothers Celebrity Theatre. Their target audience: the baby boomers, who remember such Platters’ hits as “Only You” and “Harbor Lights.”
“These are the people who were around for the drive-ins, the sock hops and malt shops. Our music takes them back,” Mr. Randle says. “I see people in our audiences holding hands and cuddling up against each other. They are reliving the old days.”
No one in The World Famous Platters is from the original group that signed with Mercury Records in 1955 and sold more than 89 million records. The Platters of Branson have been licensed to use the name through Personality Productions in Las Vegas.
When the five original Platters broke up in the early 1960s, they each got one share of the group. But most have sold their shares to production companies like Personality. Now, there are about 20 bands using the Platters’ name, some licensed and others not.
Mr. Stoval says he doesn’t mind the company. “The more groups the merrier… . We can’t do all the work ourselves.”
But not everyone agrees. Original Platter Herb Reed has contended for years that he has exclusive rights to the name, which he coined when the band formed in 1953. He says he got the idea from a disc jockey referring to records as platters.
In September, a federal judge granted Mr. Reed’s request for a preliminary injunction halting a concert in Lawrence, Mass., by a knockoff group with the same name.
“I’ve been fighting for a couple of years all these phony people going around calling themselves the Platters,” Mr. Reed said in a September interview. “You’ve got to draw these battle lines.”
Mr. Reed has indicated he will go after other groups, but Mr. Randle says he’s not worried.
“I don’t know why Herb is bent out of shape about all of this. There are at least four groups that are authorized to use the name,” he says. “Sharing a name in this business is nothing new.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Randle says he’s concentrating on drawing as many people as possible. The group has even started advertising in “black newspapers” in Kansas City, St. Louis, Little Rock, Ark., and Oklahoma City.
“We decided to reach out to black people and let them know there is a black band down here,” Mr. Randle says. “Most of them still think it’s still just country.”