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02.01.10

Ripping Off Larry Platt's "Pants"

General Larry Platt may have a viral hit, but he’s not making money off his anthem. Yet. He talks to Kim Masters about being taken to the cleaners—and selling the shirt off his back.

Much is mysterious about General Larry Platt and just how he came to be the latest sensation on American Idol at the age of 63—well beyond the cutoff for eligibility to compete for Idol-dom.

"I just went to the judges and started singing," he says.

Platt is at the Marriott in downtown Los Angeles, where he has come to perform his mega-hit, "Pants on the Ground," on the red carpet at the Grammys. Naturally, his pants are not on the ground. They are held up by a belt with a honking big gold lions-head buckle. He displays it with delight to the many passersby who recognize him, shriek, embrace him joyfully, ask for his autograph, pose for pictures, and burst into song with him.

"I got a good lawyer," Platt says. "They're going to have to give all that up." An exception, he says, is Brett Favre. "I like him. He did me right. He gave me a bit of money."

Platt greets his fans warmly. He is a walking billboard for himself, wearing a "Pants on the Ground" jacket and t-shirt along with his trademark stocking cap.

With him is his manager, Pinky, a giant of a woman with long auburn tresses. Her real name is Quovadis Brittian. How she came to be Platt's manager is a little murky. Someone showed her Platt's performance on YouTube and she thought, "One day he's going to need a manager." Pinky, who has a small music-publishing company and says she has represented athletes and musicians in the past, wasn't imagining that she would get the gig. But then within days, she was invited to meet Platt.

Certainly Platt needs a manager. Since he performed the intensely viral song before the Idol judges in mid-January, covers and spoofs have proliferated on the Internet. Millions saw Brett Favre lead the Minnesota Vikings in a version of the song after his team crushed the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs. And Jimmy Fallon covered the song twice—once as Neil Young and once alongside Idol judge Randy Jackson.

Watch: The Best ‘Pants on the Ground’ CoversPlatt has been described as a civil rights activist and student of Martin Luther King. He got his nickname, "General," from King's associate, the late Reverend Hosea Williams. The Georgia General Assembly even proclaimed September 1, 2001 "Larry Platt Day" in recognition of "his great energy and commitment to equality and the protection of the innocent."

But it's hard to reconcile the genial Platt with this crusading image. He travels with scrapbooks of clippings that he is eager to show. Apparently he spends time protesting foreclosure but as he insists that he has been "fighting for foreclosure," it's not clear what he grasps. Nonetheless, he claims that particular cause helped to inspire his anthem.

"I was fighting for foreclosure on a house on the courtroom steps," he explains. "A guy was pushing a baby stroller down the street with a baby it in it." But the guy had the baby's bottle in his mouth. "A grown guy! The baby was crying for its milk. He told the baby, `Shut up.' . . . His pants was what you call down—down by his knees. And I did not like what I see." A deputy sheriff was there but did not intervene. And so, Platt concludes, "That's when I made the song called ‘Pants on the Ground.'"

Several years later, as Platt tells it, a friend named Sallie Ann Harley urged him to audition for Idol. Pinky says Harley is Platt's "caretaker" but won't fill in details. But when Platt got to the Georgia Dome to audition, the waters parted. "There were a whole lotta people there but I went straight through the door. I didn't stand in no line," he says proudly.

"He is very prominent in Atlanta," Pinky interjects.

"I went in there," Platt resumes. "I had to get a name tag. I didn't have no name tag! . . . They said, `Where's your name tag?'"

He says a lady listened to him perform and then asked him to do it again. She asked his age and gave him a piece of paper. Platt thought he was going to Hollywood but it was really just a call-back for a few weeks later, when the Idol judges would be present.

"Then I came in front of Simon and Mary J. Blige and Randy," he continues. "Simon didn't want me to finish singing my song. I ain't mad with Simon. Other people get mad with him. . . I don't get mad with somebody because they send me away." And really, he says, the judges were good to him. "Randy danced with me. Simon hugged me. Mary J. Blige shook my hand."

As Cowell must have known when he said he had "a horrible feeling" that the song could be a hit, the Idol experience has transformed Platt's life. "Because everybody around the world begin to know me," he says. "Everywhere. Everywhere I go." He looks around the Marriott lobby. "If I sing it in here," he says, "people jump up."

He does. They do.

What's not clear is whether Platt will profit or finally suffer from all the adoration and emulation. Initial reports on TMZ said he had not copyrighted his song but now he and Pinky claim he did. "When I sang my song on American Idol, that gave me copyright," he says. "Somebody try to steal my song—trying to make money off me and I don't make nothing. I got a good lawyer. . . They're going to have to give all that up." An exception, he says, is Favre. "I like him," Platt says. "He did me right. He gave me a bit of money." (Favre and his agent did not respond to requests for a comment.)

While Platt would hold the copyright to an original song, says intellectual property attorney Lisa Callif, he would have trouble collecting damages if he had not registered it with the government. Pinky will only say that Platt's affairs are in good order at this point.

Meanwhile, Pinky knows that Platt represents a big opportunity and she says many people are trying to take advantage of it. Just after Platt's performance on Idol, another entertainment venture called Jason Mills Management was supposedly representing him. That firm has an "official" Web site selling "official" "Pants on the Ground" shirts that look nothing like the shirts worn by Pinky and Platt. Pinky says those folks are out of the picture now but on Monday morning, Jason Mills sent out an email promoting, "THE 1 AND ONLY REAL AND AUTHENTIC FULL LENGTH VERSION IN THE WORLD . . . RECORDED LIVE IN THE STUDIO, HOT OFF THE PRESS, EXCLUSIVELY GENERAL LARRY PLATT."

No one can say where Platt will wind up once the crushing gears of the Idol machine have finished grinding. It's a good bet he will make an appearance on the show's highly rated finale this spring. (To be clear, an Idol spokesman says Platt "is not in our machine—he just appeared on our show.")

But at this moment, whether Platt is compensated in money seems beside the point. He is relishing his celebrity. And he does have a mission. "I want to get these kids' pants off the ground," he says. "That's the main thing."

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.