On This Day In Rock History, Frito-Lay Learns Not To Tangle With Tom Waits!


If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Tom Waits did NOT get the memo.

The year was 1988 and the fine folks at Frito-Lay were hard at work banging out Cheetos, Fritos, and Doritos. Meanwhile, their advertising firm Tracey-Locke out of Dallas, TX was on the phone to Tom Waits asking if they could license his song "Step Right Up" for their commercial advertising Doritos' latest flavor, Salsa Rio!

Waits, who had a penchant for turning down any and all such offers, told the suits at Tracey-Locke "no dice" and promptly gave it no further thought. Months later, while being interviewed by a radio station, Waits heard the Doritos spot on the air and immediately took notice of the similarity between his own seemingly inimitable singing voice and that used on the commercial.

Tom Waits' first call was to his lawyer, who promptly filed suit against Frito-Lay in the amount of $4 million for damage to his reputation. There were no grounds for copyright infringement since Waits did not own the copyright to the song "Step Right Up", his former label did. This meant that Waits would be suing for the mere approximation of his likeness, which had also been the basis for a successful lawsuit by Bette Midler against the Ford Motor Company in 1988.

In that suit, Ms. Midler had alleged that a Bette Midler impersonator had been hired to sing the Midler hit "Do You Want To Dance?" after she had turned down the offer. The court ruled in Midler's favor, but Waits' case would be the first test of that decision.

While many would agree that Waits has a distinctive style, his lawyers would have to prove that Waits was well-known enough to warrant being impersonated.

In April 1990, Waits' day in court finally arrived. Taking the stand in his own defense, Waits claimed the imitation he heard in the commercial had been so accurate that, for a moment, he thought he'd actually sung the spot while blackout drunk and merely forgot.

He also admitted that, during a particularly rough patch early in his career, he'd accepted an offer to narrate a dog food commercial, but that such offers are routinely turned down.

A jury ruled in Waits' favor, awarding the singer $2.6 million in compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees.

And what of that dog food commercial Waits' narrated?

Thanks to YouTube, here it is in all of its gruff but lovable glory!

Superior St. Rehearsal Facility

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