The Imperials, one of Christian music's most popular singing groups in the 1970s and early '80s, are currently embroiled in a complex legal battle over who owns the group's name and who gets to reap the profits from that name.
Armond Morales, who in 1964 cofounded the group that went on to win four Grammys and 13 Dove Awards, and his wife, Bonnie, are being sued for the Imperials name by a younger group that includes Armond's son, Jason Morales.
That younger group four singers who say they're now the "real" Imperials claims that when the elder Morales signed an assignment of trademark in 2005, he transferred ownership of the name to the four singers in the current lineup.
Armond Morales, 75, told Christianity Today he did not consult an attorney before signing the assignment, and now says he was pressured into signing away more than he bargained for, and perhaps more than he owned the rights to.
"They have set out to really put me out of business and have no connection with the Imperials, which was my life," Morales said. "I've been devastated by this."
The younger group filed a lawsuit in June 2007. Armond's attorneys drafted a countersuit in September 2007, claiming that the younger group fraudulently got him to sign the 2005 agreement. But the elder Morales said he decided to drop the countersuit due to financial limitations.
A Nashville judge ordered the two sides to mediation in hopes that they would settle out of court.
Luke Anderson, an attorney representing the younger group, said he believes the case will end up in court later this year. Anderson said his clients "remain wishful [for a settlement], but also skeptical that this matter will settle at this point."
CT obtained a copy of the 2005 assignment of trademark agreement, which not only stipulates that the elder Morales would pass the Imperials name on to the younger group, but also that he would give up his right, title, and interest to the Imperials trademark.
The 2007 lawsuit seeks to have Armond Morales stop using the name "the Classic Imperials" a name that he and other singers have used in performances in recent years. The younger group also wants Armond to hand over any money he's earned with the Classic Imperials.
'Not Keeping His Word'
The younger group is suing the elder Morales under the corporation name of MOSH, an acronym derived from their last names (Jason Morales, Ian Owens, Shannon Smith, and Jeremie Hudson). Even though he is a 25-percent shareholder in MOSH, Jason Morales, 35, told CT, "I have legally rescinded myself from the business part of it," implying that he's not taking an active part in the lawsuit against his father.
Jason Morales deferred further questions to business partner Smith.
"We're suing [Armond Morales] because he's not keeping his word," Smith said. "He's hurting our business on a regular basis. We felt like we were forced to start litigation or shut the group down."
Smith said it boils down to the 2005 agreement: "Our whole standing to be the Imperials is rooted in the assignment of trademark that Mr. Morales signed."
Armond Morales says the younger group verbally told him he could sing using the Classic Imperials name, but that stipulation was never included in the 2005 written agreement.
Armond told CT that MOSH does not want him to claim to have won Grammy and Dove Awards that the Imperials won as a group between 1969 and 1984. The younger group now makes that claim, even though none of them were members of the group at the time. The younger group also now bills itself as a "Gospel Music Hall of Fame Inductee," even though none of the current members were with the Imperials at that induction a decade ago.
"Our contention is that none of the individual Imperials won group awards," Smith said. "It's very similar to a sports team. If a player retires, he doesn't take the awards with him unless he won individual awards. The team won those championships. They stay with the team."
Singing in the Same Market
The elder Morales says he signed the document in 2005 because he had retired from the Imperials in 2003 and that "it made sense" at the time to transfer the name to his son and the new group. He adds that the younger group was "pressuring me to get out of the group, even though I was the owner. They thought they could do things better and didn't need an old guy."
Armond Morales moved to Hawaii to sing with the Classic Imperials, but when the company they worked for went bankrupt, the group moved to Tennessee in 2006. At that time, the younger group and Armond interviewed with Southern Gospel News announcing the groups' coexistence in Tennessee. The younger group said, "We are honored to carry on this legacy, and it's always a big honor to be on stage with them."
Smith now says MOSH agreed to that interview because they were "trying to make the best of a bad situation." He says MOSH never believed the two groups could exist in the same market.
"It's confusing to people," said Smith, noting that when he books his group, people ask, "Now, which Imperials are you?" Smith said. "I shouldn't have to explain who's who."
Armond Morales said he doesn't believe his performances with the Classic Imperials are taking business away from the younger group. The Classic Imperials sang about 25 concerts in 2007, while the younger group performed more than 150 times.
The Fight Over a Name
In August 2006, MOSH applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the national trademark to "The Imperials," but was denied because another singer Clarence Collins owns the name.
Collins is a member of Little Anthony & the Imperials, an African American group popular in the late 1950s and early '60s. During the height of their popularity, Armond Morales contacted Collins to seek permission to use the name "the Imperials" for his fledgling group. In March 2007, Collins told the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that he did grant Morales permission to use the Imperials name back in the 1960s, but according to the trademark office, Collins still owns the national trademark.
Then in October 2006, MOSH filed a petition of cancellation with the trademark board, asking to have Collins removed as owner of the Imperials trademark. The group claimed that Collins committed fraud because he knew Armond Morales was using "the Imperials" name, and because Collins changed the name of his group from "the Imperials" to "Little Anthony & the Imperials." MOSH also claims that because Collins's group has not continued to perform over the years, it "abandoned" the trademark, thus making it available to others. However, a decision on the trademark petition was suspended due to MOSH's lawsuit against Armond Morales.
When Armond Morales found out MOSH was going after the national trademark, he contacted Collins. According to court documents, Armond Morales asked Collins for permission to use the Imperials name so he could continue singing with the Classic Imperials. Morales told Collins at the time that MOSH was planning to sue the elder Morales for using the name.
Smith told CT that those conversations between Morales and Collins prompted MOSH's lawsuit against Morales. Smith claims that those conversations could have "opened up a potential lawsuit" from Collins against the younger group over use of the Imperials name. "He [Armond Morales] had called into question our very existence legally," said Smith.
Collins did not return phone calls from CT.
Because Collins owns the national trademark, the younger group wants Armond to give them the trademark rights he owns under common law, as common-law rights are gained from usage of a trademark and do not require registration. When MOSH applied for the name in Tennessee in September 2006, they were awarded the trademark in Tennessee under common law. If Armond Morales's common-law rights were not transferred to MOSH, the younger group would not be able to continue attempting to obtain a national trademark.
Still More Imperials
Adding to the confusion is the fact that there is a fourth group with some claim to the Imperials name. In addition to the Classic Imperials (Armond Morales and friends), the younger Imperials (Jason Morales and MOSH), and Little Anthony & the Imperials, there's another group billing itself as the Imperials. That group is composed of former members of the original Imperials including Terry Blackwood that once backed up Elvis Presley in his Las Vegas shows in 196972. That group continues to perform occasional shows, doing Elvis tributes and sometimes backing up Elvis impersonators.
Joe Moscheo, a current member of this group, told CT he believes the younger members think that Armond "duped" them into something that didn't have any worth when he signed the trade agreement in 2005.
"I think Armond was caught in the moment [in 2005]," Moscheo said. "He was retiring and wanted to do something for his son. Armond made a bad deal. He was giving away something he didn't rightfully own himself. Now they're trying to press him for it. Even if they win, it's a lose-lose situation for both sides."
While the legal battle continues, both parties keep moving ahead with their music. Armond and the Classic Imperials who for now call themselves "the Artists Formerly Known as the Imperials" are independently releasing a cd titled Standing Strong.
Meanwhile, the younger version of the Imperials has an extensive touring schedule and plans to record a Christmas album independently this year.
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The younger Imperials respond to this article, saying "We feel it is time to let the truth be known," with an "Open Letter" on their website.
Armond Morales responds with "A Letter to My Son" at his own website.
The younger Imperials' site includes history, bio, and upcoming concerts.
The Classic Imperials recently created a new site and call themselves "the Artists Formerly Known as the Imperials."
The Imperials and Armond Morales interviewed with Southern Gospel News after Armond began singing with the Classic Imperials.