In Miami, as in other cities, it's not uncommon for at least two people to have exactly the same name. Check the phone book under Garcia, for example, and you'll find more than twenty Fernandos and a full two columns of Joses.
For most people, these duplications pose at most a minor inconvenience, such as when someone dials 411 and requests a listing for Jorge Fernandez (of whom there are 68). But when it comes to entertainers, the same-name situation is no trivial matter. Public confusion can be helpful to one person and devastating to another. There are, of course, legal approaches to resolving matters, but even then there's no guarantee of setting things right -- especially if one party is employed by an international megacorporation.
Earlier this year, Sony Discos, the Miami-based Latin-music subsidiary of the mammoth Sony Corporation, released a new album, Solo y con Ganas (Alone and with Desires). Merengue aficionados have doubtless noticed that the album's first single, "Ay! Mami," has enjoyed moderately heavy rotation on local Spanish-language stations, as it has in other cities with Spanish-speaking markets. Sony Discos wants success for the new talent behind "Ay! Mami," Gaby Gabriel, who hails from the Dominican Republic, birthplace of merengue.
This does not make the Cuban Gaby Gabriel happy.
"There's no question -- he can't have my name. I've had it longer!" fumes Gabriel, who left Cuba in 1966 at age fourteen and moved to Miami from Tampa in 1985. "And Sony knows this. They're steppin' on my ass!"
Sony's Gaby Gabriel (whose real name is Humberto Gabriel Lantigua) is a 25-year-old drummer-vocalist who seems to have an affinity for hair-styling products and shirtless poses. The "real" Gaby Gabriel (given name: Gabriel Castillo) is a 43-year-old percussionist-vocalist who can usually be found Wednesdays through Sundays decked out in a dinner jacket and leading the orchestra at the Fontainebleau Hilton's Club Tropigala in Miami Beach.
Not that Castillo has anything against the bare-chest motif. "I do that, too," he says, proudly displaying a publicity shot of himself going to town on the bongos, clad only in black pants and vest. Nor, he says, does he have a real problem with Humberto Gabriel Lantigua. "I really don't care about the guy, and I really don't blame him, either. I think he's just trying to make it in the business, and he probably didn't know there was another Gaby Gabriel. It's Sony I'm mad at. They knew better."
Ever since he moved to Miami, Castillo has been working under the name Gaby Gabriel. In addition to singing gigs, from 1989 to 1992 he anchored Amanecer Azul, a morning magazine show on WRHC-AM (1550), and hosted the Telebingo game show on Telemiami Cable. He's also the featured voice in the local Spanish-language commercials for FPL, Publix, JC Penney, and Levitz Furniture.
"I even played myself in the Sean Connery movie Just Cause," says Castillo. "In other words, I'm known here. And now people are thinking this other guy is me." He shakes his head. "What really gets me is that the guys at Sony Discos who have been handling this other guy have worked with me before."
Castillo cut two independent albums in the late Eighties, one of which, he says, was partially recorded under the supervision of Jorge Piloto, now a Sony Discos exec. "It was 1989, before Sony bought out the division of CBS records that's now Sony Discos," Castillo remembers. "Jorge was there in the studio with me. I have proof -- you can hear him on the master recording. And Manny Benito, who's head of Discos' A&R, we've known each other since Tampa. We even performed together several times. I mean, these guys should have told this kid, 'Hey, we like your stuff, but you're gonna have to get another name.'"
It was about six months ago, says Castillo, that people started showing up at the Tropigala and congratulating him about "his" song on the radio. "I don't listen to a lot of commercial radio, and at first I didn't pay much attention, but after about two weeks, I thought, 'This is getting serious.'"
Not long afterward, Castillo recalls, he got an apologetic call from the music programmer at a Tampa radio station where he once had worked as news director. "He says, 'Gaby, I'm so embarrassed. A promotional CD came up without a picture, so we really promoted it as you. We were so embarrassed when we put it on and it wasn't your voice.' I didn't think this was funny any more. I went into a record store, and there it was A my name with someone else's face. I called Sony, but they wouldn't return my calls. So I decided to get a lawyer."
Enter attorney Richard Wolfe. An entertainment brief-slinger with Bedzow, Korn & Kan, Wolfe has a proven track record when it comes to disputes about stage names. He, after all, is the lawyer who successfully blocked one ex-Gipsy King's efforts to perform under a similar name. On behalf of rappers David Hobbs and Mark Ross, he also wrested the 2 Live Crew moniker away from Luther Campbell.
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In late August Wolfe sent Sony a letter with a simple message: Change your performer's name or we sue.
"The real Gaby has been performing for ten years with this name, and now there's this imposter who has created confusion," cries Wolfe. "The first to use the name is the first to own it. We're looking for Sony to change the name and to pay money to the real Gaby for the damages he's sustained as a result of the confusion."
Sony Discos A&R man Manny Benito seems to agree, at least to a point. "There's only one Gaby Gabriel, the one at the Fontainebleau," he confirms, but won't say anything further. The Gaby Gabriel of questionable pedigree could not be reached for comment, and Sony executives in New York and Miami did not return several phone calls.
According to Wolfe, settlement discussions have been under way, "but I don't know if there's a done deal." The sooner the better, says Castillo, who says he really doesn't want to have to go to court. The money doesn't matter, he adds. "The hell with it," Castillo says. "They were offering, like, one or two thousand dollars. They can stick it up their ass. I just want the guy to drop the name.