30 years ago today, during a “live” performance for MTV the playback device failed and began to skip. Not only did it halt the performance it triggered the beginning of the end of one of the biggest scandals to rock the music industry.
This is the story of Milli Vanilli…
Milli Vanilli was put together in 1988 by German producer and songwriter, Frank Farian, but we have to go a little bit farther back to truly understand how Milli Vanilli came about.
Franz Reuther was born in Kirn, Germany in 1941. He began as a trainee chef before starting out in the music industry. Initially, he saw himself as a solo artist and in 1967 released a cover of Otis Redding’s “Mr Pitiful” under the name Frankie Farian, with a cover of Donnie Elbert’s “Will You Ever Be Mine” on the other side. The single didn’t really make an impact.
His next single featured 2 songs he had written himself, “Gypsy” on the A-side and “Wenn Alle Wünsche In Erfüllung Gehen” (If all your wishes come true) on the b-side. These were not in the Soul/Beat style of the previous single, they were in the style known in German as “Schlager”, the German language is famously full of obscure words with oddly specific meanings and as a result, there is no direct translation.
Schlager is a type of pop music designed to be simple and catchy, often with happy-go-lucky or sentimental lyrics. The most literal translation of the word is simply “hit music”. The closest musical reference would be easy listening or the type of songs you hear at the Eurovision Song Contest. Schlager style music influenced the early songwriting of Benny and Björn from ABBA.
Farian said the change of style was not his choice. “No one wanted my music, It was better from America. A white singer singing black music wouldn’t work. The record companies sent me back to German music.”
Over the next 5 years, Frank Farian released a dozen or so singles for various labels, all with little on no success. In 1971 he had a minor hit with “Was Kann Schöner Sein?” a cover of Solomon King’s “When You’ve Gotta Go” sung in German. By this time he was now producing his own records. He released another half dozen or so singles, again garnering little attention.
In 1974 he wrote a song based on Prince Buster’s 1967 hit “Al Capone” called “Baby, Do You Wanna Bump?”, mixing the jaunty ska tune’s horn lines with his schlager style pop vocals and some hints of disco. His vocals were pitched low and processed in the studio to sound deeper than usual, and he also sang backing vocals in falsetto
He didn’t think the song really fit the style of the other Frankie Farian songs as they were now more rock-influenced schlager pop songs. He decided not to release this under his own name and instead took the name of a detective from an Australian TV show called Boney. He added an M as he thought it had a better ring to it.
“Do You Wanna Bump?” didn’t chart in Germany but reached number 14 in the Netherlands and number 8 in Belgium. Soon there were requests for Boney M to perform the song live. The cover of the single didn’t feature Farian’s face like his other releases, so nobody actually knew what Boney M looked like.
He decided instead of fronting the song himself he would hire models and dancers to appear live and mime to his vocals. First to join the line up was Maizie Williams, a model from Monserrat, raised in Britain and now living in West Germany. She was approached while sitting in a restaurant with her friend Sheyla, and although her brother Billy had told her she had a “terrible voice” and should “keep working as a walking clothes-hanger” she didn’t say no when asked if she could sing.
Her singing ability didn’t actually matter because all that was required of her was to look good on the stage and mime along to the falsetto backing vocals. So Maizie along with Sheyla, another girl and a guy hit the road to promote Boney M.
They toured discos and did a few TV performances with that line up before Sheyla decided that miming to someone else’s voice was not for her and she left with aspirations of being an actual singer, the other 2 also left. Maizie stayed while other members came and went until eventually Farian discovered dancer Bobby Farrell working as a DJ and he joined the group along with Jamaican singer Marcia Barrett. By 1976 another Jamaican singer, Liz Mitchell had also joined Boney M.
Inspired by the success of “Do You Wanna Bump?” Farian began working on an album for the group. Marcia Barrett and Liz Mitchell recorded all the female vocals and Farian continued to record the male parts with the same pitched down and processed sound. For the live shows, Barrett and Mitchell would sing while Bobby Farrell would mime to Farian’s vocals.
Bobby Farrell’s live performances became one of the groups defining features but when it came to the recordings he was barely involved at all.
By the time Bobby Farrell left the group in 1981, his total contribution to all six Boney M albums was a rap on “That’s Boonoonoonoos (Train to Skaville)” and a spoken introduction for “We Kill the World (Don’t Kill the World)”.
None of the label copy or liner notes on the early Boney M records credit Bobby Farrell as a vocalist. It simply credits “Boney M” with the performance, by the time they were listing individual performing credits Farrell had left the group and been replaced by Reggie Tsiboe, who did actually contribute to the recordings.
The reasons for Farrell’s departure vary depending on the source, Farian’s camp says that he became “unreliable” while his family say he was upset at the lack of opportunity to perform on the recordings and he wasn’t earning as much as some group members. He was reportedly paid 100,000 DM when he joined the group but wasn’t entitled to any royalties for the majority of the tracks as he hadn’t performed on them. His main source of income was from performing live.
When Bobby Farrell rejoined the group in 1984 he did perform vocals, and all the members of the group now performed live. There are a few youtube videos of Farrell in the 80s, singing songs he previously would have mimed to.
The first album released after Bobby Farrell left, “Ten Thousand Lightyears” faired badly compared to previous releases peaking at #23 in the German album chart and failing to break the top 40 anywhere else. The first single did so badly it was dropped from the album line-up and the album was reworked around a completely different theme with the album and many of the songs being renamed.
Farrell rejoined the group in 1984 and they released their final studio album “Eye Dance”, which faired even worse than the preceding album. They disbanded in 1986 shortly after their 10th-anniversary celebrations.
It’s clear that Farian had lost interest in his most successful project to date, even before they eventually split in 1986. He formed the group Far Corporation, mostly using members of Toto, and released a cover of “Stairway to Heaven” late in 1985. It became the first version of the song to chart as Led Zeppelin never officially released it as a single, in fact, it’s still the only version to make it onto the Billboard chart.
Far Corporation released an album, “Division One” shortly after “Stairway to Heaven” that did well enough to prompt them to record a second album “Advantage” due to be released in 1987. However, both the first two singles failed to chart and the album was scrapped. One the tracks recorded for the second album, “Big Brother” would turn up a few years later on a Milli Vanilli album.
Farian continued to work as a songwriter, producer and mixing engineer over the next few years. He mixed the 1986 Meatloaf album “Blind Before I Stop”, and provided vocals for one of the tracks. It wasn’t long before another of his creations was centre stage.
Girl You Know It’s True
In 1987 Sean “DJ Spen” Spencer, Kevin Liles and Rodney “Kool Rod” Holloman AKA DJ crew Numarx from Annapolis, Maryland, released the follow up to their minor hit “Rhymes So Def”, a rap track that had received national airplay in the USA. The new track was based on music written by local musician, Bill Pettaway, who worked at a gas station to get by. He developed the song with the other members of Numarx who produced the beat adding sampled drums and stabs, giving it a similar sound to “Rhymes So Def”.
Another local musician, Kayode Adeyemo the keys player and vocalist in Maryland R&B group Starpoint, later added keys and a catchy “ooh ooh ooh” to the hook. Liles and Holloman provided the rapped verses with Spencer doing backing vocals. The hook was sung by Charles Christopher, a mutual friend of Pettaway and Adeyemo.
The finished track “Girl You Know It’s True” was released on Studio Records and although it didn’t have the same success in the USA as “Rhymes So Def” it became a hit in the clubs in Germany.
It wasn’t long before Frank Farian heard the track and began working on his own version. He started by copying the drum beats hit for hit. His studio was equipped with all the latest drum machines, synthesizers and audio processors so by the time he had finished copying the music it sounded much bigger and heavier than the Numarx original.
Next, he hired Linda and Julie Rocco, twin sisters from America now living in Germany, to start laying down the vocals. He played the Numarx track in the studio for the Rocco twins to copy. Brad Howell and Charles Shaw were brought in to record the other vocals on the track. Charles Shaw performed the rap for “Girl You Know It’s True”, and Brad Howell sang the chorus.
Farian finished the track off and he knew he had a hit on his hands, but he didn’t think the session singers had the right look to front the project.
For 10 years he had sung vocals for Boney M and Bobby Farrell had mimed them, they sold tens of millions of records and played concerts all over the world with nobody ever scrutinising them. The only objections came from Farrell, who went along with it for most of that time, so Farian decided he would try the same formula again.
He instructed talent scouts and model agencies to find him suitable candidates to front his new project much like when he was recruiting for Boney M.
Finding people to front the project was only half the problem. Farian also had to deal with the session singers whom he had largely kept in the dark about his plans for the project.
Brad Howell was 45 when the song was recorded and was already an accomplished session and touring musician who had played for an array of major artists like Madonna, Lionel Richie, Cher, Tina Turner, George Michael, Janet Jackson and Bruce Springsteen to name just a few.
Howell had no objections to somebody else fronting the project and miming to his performance, Charles Shaw, on the other hand, was just 28 years old at the time and had aspirations of being a pop star in his own right…he would prove to be a problem later.
Rob & Fab
Robert Pilatus was born in Munich in 1965, his mother was German and his father was an African-American soldier. He spent his first few years in an orphanage before eventually being adopted, aged 4. His adoptive sister Carmen was a keen singer who liked to sing Elvis Presley songs, often while Rob strummed away on the guitar.
Fabrice Morvan was born in Paris in 1966, his parents were from Guadeloupe a French territory in the Caribbean. He moved to Germany in 1984 and soon became a regular in the club scene. When he met Rob Pilatus in Munich sometime in 1988 they clashed initially as they had “dated the same girls”, as Fab put it, but they eventually decided to “join forces” and bonded over their love of music and clubbing.
Many of the stories about Milli Vanilli describe Rob and Fab as models and/or dancers prior to becoming Milli Vanilli, but that doesn’t really paint an accurate picture. According to Fab they did a few catalogue modelling jobs but were not full-time professional models. They saw themselves as musicians first and foremost. Rob had already had a taste of performing as the guitarist in Wind, a German band who came 2nd in the 1987 Eurovision song contest with their song “Laß die Sonne in dein Herz”.
Rob knew a bunch of musicians who did sessions for Frank Farian, he and Fab would play football with them from time to time. It wasn’t long before they were all jamming, with Rob and Fab on vocals. They got together for a live performance at Fasching, a Bavarian carnival that takes place around the end of February or early March. It’s through this performance that Frank Farian apparently heard about the duo.
He either saw for himself personally or someone had told him about the high energy performance that would later become the Milli Vanilli trademark. Either way, he came to the conclusion that Rob and Fab would be perfect to front his new project. He arranged a meeting with the duo to discuss his plans.
They met him at his studio, a state of the art facility on the outskirts of the city, just a few years earlier Stevie Wonder recorded his #1 hit (and best selling song to date) “I Just Called To Say I Love You” in the same studio. It would have been hard for the two young aspiring pop stars to have not been blown away by the surroundings. Gold and Platinum disks lined many of the walls, and the gigantic SSL and Neve mixing desks would have seemed like something from a sci-fi movie.
Frank played Rob and Fab the track he had been working on or at least the instrumental anyway. He gave the impression the vocals still needed to be recorded, despite the track being finished already, it’s likely the vocals were simply muted on the mixer while he was playing them the track.
After hearing the instrumental Frank Farian had made for “Girl You Know It’s True”, Rob and Fab didn’t take much convincing to agree to a deal, pretty much on the spot.
Farian signed them to a “production deal”, these types of deals were very common in the 80s and 90s. The producer would agree to use their resources to make recordings and then when those recordings are released and monetized the producer would receive a share of the income. The income they receive can be structured in a few different ways. In the case of Frank Farian, as the person funding the project, he would own the master recordings and have the right to transfer the ownership or license the recordings, to a label.
He was also a writer or co-writer of many of the songs he produced so would also have a sizable chunk of the publishing for the songs.
They were given around $4000 as an advance and they signed the agreement without fully understanding what they were agreeing to as they had no legal advice. As far as advances go, $4000 was not a lot of money by anyone’s standard, but for 2 aspiring pop stars in their early 20’s it seemed like a decent enough amount and the opportunity seemed too good to refuse.
Farian told them he would be in touch when he needed them, they assumed this meant recording the vocals for the track they had just heard. They left the studio excited about what the future would hold.
They used their advance money to buy new clothes and get hair extensions, I always imagine it like a scene from a movie with a montage of them trying on various outfits until they settle on jackets with huge shoulder pads and cycling shorts.
According to Fab, they chose the long hair extensions after watching a documentary on pop culture icons like Elvis, Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe. They noticed that all the biggest icons had very recognisable images with the hair often being the focal point.
So with their image sorted they reported to the studio, assuming they would be recording the vocals. They were told by Farian that the vocals had been recorded, and all he needed them to do was lip-sync the words in a music video and do some promotional shows.
They were horrified and flatly refused, they wanted to sing not just dance around and mime. Frank Farian told them they had signed an agreement that committed them to the project for 3 albums, and they were contractually obliged to do all of the promotional work associated with those albums. He said if they wanted out of the deal all they had to do was repay the advance they had been given and they would be released from their commitments.
The truth is the contract was “voidable”, as it could be argued that Farian had misrepresented the contents of the agreement by leading them to believe they would be singing on the tracks, and wasn’t clear about his intentions until after they signed. Any half-decent lawyer could get that contract voided. They didn’t have a lawyer or anyone advising them, at all.
Unable to pay back the money, as they had spent it all, Rob and Fab agreed to do the promotional work for “Girl You Know It’s True” and then once they had paid off what they were advanced they would go their own way. Well, that was the plan anyway.
Farian had released Boney M and some of his other projects through German label Hansa, Boney M was the most successful band they had ever had so it was easy for Farian to get them on board for this new project. Hansa Records were owned by Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG), who also owned a few other labels like RCA, Ariola and Arista.
The project was given the name Milli Vanilli. It comes from Frank Farian’s girlfriend Ingrid Segieth, who’s nickname was Milli, the Vanilli was added to end to make it sound better and is reminiscent of another band of that time Scritti Politti.
On the 25th June 1988 the debut Milli Vanilli single, “Girl You Know It’s True” was released by Hansa records in Europe. It was a smash hit in Germany (at the time is was West Germany), reaching the top spot in the German charts.
Despite the success of the single, at least one person wasn’t satisfied. Charles Shaw had been paid around $6000 for the rap on “Girl You Know It’s True”, a pretty decent session fee for what seemed like either a demo or a faceless throwaway club track. Neither Charles nor the other vocalists had been told of the actual plan up to this point, so a smash hit across Europe was the last thing anyone involved expected.
Shaw began threatening to go public, it’s not clear if he wanted money, more recognition for his contribution or his own project. Either way, Frank Farian was not going to stand for it and he removed Charles Shaw from his future plans. He drafted in John Davis to record the raps for the rest of the album, but this was not the last they would hear of Shaw.
As well as replacing Shaw, Farian also tightened the reigns. He prohibited the voices of Milli Vanilli from ever meeting the faces of the group and reminded everybody that the deals they had signed all contained non-disclosure agreements. There would be severe repercussions for anyone breaching it.
Meanwhile, Rob and Fab were seemingly no closer to returning their advances, it wasn’t just the $4000 now as they had been receiving regular money from Farian for their living expenses. They were caught in a sort of vicious circle, they needed money to pay rent and other day-to-day costs but then needed to do more shows and more promotional work in an attempt to pay it off and get out of the deal.
It’s also likely that the thrill of performing to large audiences of adoring fans, and the regular income that brings was hard to walk away from, for whatever reasons Rob and Fab continued to go along with it.
In November 1988, with “Girl You Know It’s True” still topping charts around Europe and steadily climbing the Billboard chart in the USA, Hansa released the Milli Vanilli album “All Or Nothing” across Europe.
8 of the 13 tracks on the album were written or co-written by Frank Farian, which means he would receive just over 60% of the publishing. To put that into $$$, the mechanical license royalties (paid by Hansa to the writers of the tracks) just in Germany alone would be worth over $20,000 to Farian. These royalties are paid when the records are manufactured before a single unit is sold, he would later also receive royalties from the sales of the records and radio airplay.
It’s unclear what, if any, royalties from record sales would be paid to Rob and Fab. Thier actual contribution to the audio recordings is nil, they are merely props so aren’t actually entitled to anything.
At least 9 different vocalists are credited with performing on the album, and that doesn’t include the gospel choir The Jacksons Singers who also feature on the record. On the European release, Rob and Fab are not among the many people credited as vocalists. In fact, their names don’t appear on the record at all, just their pictures
By now, the success of the first single in Europe and its growing popularity in the USA was getting the attention of another BMG owned label, Arista. Instead of licensing “All Or Nothing” from Farian and Hansa, they signed Milli Vanilli directly with the intention of reworking the record for the American market.
Hot on the heels of “All Or Nothing”, the second single “Don’t Forget My Number” was released in Europe and although it didn’t reach the heights of their debut it still charted all across Europe and made the top 10 in Germany, Netherlands and Spain.
It’s been less than 9 months since they signed with Frank Farian and already they had 2 European hit singles an album climbing the charts and a record deal with a major label in the USA. Whatever thoughts they had of trying to get out were at least getting shadowed by the excitement of it all, if not completely blocked out.
On March 7th, 1989, Arista released the re-worked and re-titled Milli Vanilli album. It was now called “Girl You Know It’s True” as the first single was now at number 2 in the Billboard chart. Half of the 8 tracks penned by Farian were gone, among the replacements was a Climie Fisher song, an Isley Brothers cover and a song written by Diane Warren.
This version of the album credits Rob & Fab with the vocals, something the Hansa releases never did. It’s also worth noting the Arista pressing is a bit of a shambles, the track order on the cover doesn’t match what’s printed on the label or the content itself. Some parts of the artwork still say “All Or Nothing”, the original title.
It doesn’t matter where you are from in the world or what style of music you do, the absolute pinnacle for any recording artist is a number 1 record in the USA. To reach that stage in little over a year without touring the country and with only your second single was phenomenal, so naturally, all eyes were on Milli Vanilli now.
They had done many shows already over the last year or so and would still go on to do a full European and US tour but little did they know their next performance would be the one they would be remembered for.
On the 21st of July 1989, Milli Vanilli took to the stage for a performance on MTV at the Lake Compounce theme park in Bristol, Connecticut. Partway through the performance the device responsible for playback jammed and kept repeating the line “Girl, you know it’s…Girl, you know it’s…Girl, you know it’s…” over and over.
Pilatus recalled the incident in an interview saying, “When my voice got stuck in the computer, and it just kept repeating and repeating, I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I just ran off the stage.”
MTV host “Downtown” Julie Brown ran after him and after some er gentle persuasion convinced him to finish the performance. “With a bit of pushing and screaming, and a couple of F-words I think as well, I got them back out there,” Brown explained.
They completed the set and the audience barely seemed to notice, or maybe they did and thought it was intentional? It was after all the late 80s and chopped up, sampled vocals were becoming quite common. Less than a year previous Mel & Kim topped the charts around the world with “Respectable”, the song sampled the first word of the chorus and repeated it in a similarly choppy way “Tay-tay-tay-tay t-tay-t-tay-t-tay-tay take or leave us only please believe us we ain’t ever gonna be respectable”. Or maybe the audience noticed but simply didn’t care? Either way, the show went on as if nothing unusual had happened.
There were however, many journalists in the audience and watching the broadcast who did notice and did care. Some radio and tv producers previously had suspicions that all was not what it seemed with Milli Vanilli prior to that incident, an example is Beth McCarthy-Miller (director of many TV shows such as 30 Rock and Brooklyn 99) who was a production assistant at MTV in the late ’80s, she thought it was odd that two Europeans with thick accents when they spoke and fairly limited English language skills could be able to sing and rap in such flawless American accents. It wasn’t until this performance that the suspicions grew into more than that.
Two weeks after the now-infamous incident, Milli Vanilli released their 3rd single, “Girl, I’m gonna miss you”. It entered the charts on August 5th 1989 and 8 weeks later it became their 2nd US number 1 record. In retrospect, the opening lyrics to the song seem prophetic now that we know how the next few months turn out.
“It’s a tragedy for me to see the dream is over”
On September 5th they set off their first European tour, lasting 10 weeks. Halfway through the tour their 4th single “Blame It On The Rain” was released. The song was written by Diane Warren and gave the group their 3rd US number 1, the song it knocked off the top spot Bad English’s “When I See You Smile” was also penned by Diane Warren.
In December 1989, with “Blame It On the Rain” still on the top spot on the charts, Charles Shaw made good on his earlier threats. He told New York Newsday writer John Leland that Rob and Fab were impostors who hadn’t sung a note and he was one of three actual singers on Milli Vanilli’s hit debut album. He retracted the statement shortly after saying it was a publicity stunt to promote his own upcoming release. Frank Farian is reported to have paid $155,000 for the retraction and Shaw’s continued silence.
On January 6th 1990, they released the 5th single from the album “All Or Nothing”, and 3 weeks later they won 3 of the 4 awards they were nominated for at the American Music Awards.
“All or Nothing” didn’t fare as well as the previous singles and although it still made the top 40 it ended the run of consecutive number 1s.
On February 21st 1990 a stunned Milli Vanilli accepted the Grammy award for the best new artist, beating Neneh Cherry, Indigo Girls, Tone Loc and Soul II Soul.
As they made their way to the stage to accept the award from Young Mc and Kris Kristofferson they looked elated but inside I’m sure it was dawning on them that it was now a matter of when, not if, the truth would come out. Surely now as Grammy winners, the scrutiny would be too much?
Some music journalists felt that Milli Vanilli were not worthy winners of the Grammy. Rolling Stone magazine named them the worst act of 1989 and “Girl You Know Its True” the worst album.
In a Time magazine interview, in April ’89, Rob was quoted as saying “Musically, we are more talented than Paul McCartney. Mick Jagger, his lines are not clear. He don’t know how he should produce a sound. I’m the new modern rock ‘n’ roll. I’m the new Elvis.”
Fab claims Rob was misquoted and taken out of context but it’s easy to believe that by now Rob was starting buy into his own hype.
After the Time article was published the tide began to turn. The record sales slowed down, and the coverage in the press was less favourable.
Rob and Fab are sitting in their hotel one night after a gig they turn on the TV and “In Living Color” is on. Damon and Keenan Ivory Wayans have wigs on with long braids and even before they spoke it’s obvious who they were meant to be.
“Call now and get your Milli Vanilli kit, in just 10 minutes you too can look and sound like Milli Vanilli…but act now cos we’re almost out of style”
They were now the butt of the joke, it wasn’t just the Wayans. David Letterman did one of his famous top 10 lists on 10 jobs Milli Vanilli could do other than music.
They knew Frank Farian had already started on a second album, with the same singers as before. They decided enough was enough they didn’t want to just be lip-synching anymore. They demanded to be able to sing on the next album or they would have no involvement.
The standoff lasted a few months until eventually Frank Farian flew to LA and broke the story himself in November 1990. His version of events is quite different to Rob and Fab’s.
According to Farian, he did let them sing. “I’ve never heard such a bad singer,” he says. “They wanted to sing. They wanted to write songs. It never happened. They went instead to discos till 4 a.m. and slept all day. All they ever really did was party. Someone who lives like that can’t make good music.”
He also said he never expected it to be as successful as it was. “I thought, OK, it’s just for discotheques and clubs. I never thought it would be a great hit, not No. 1, not Top 10 in America. And then it was too late and I was too embarrassed to say anything.”
Frank Farian doesn’t think he did wrong by Rob and Fab, quite the opposite. “I made them rich. Rob and Fab got 3 million marks–$2.1 million–from us. The record companies were very satisfied. The real singers also got rich. And Frank Farian got even richer. Only Rob Pilatus wanted much more.”
Farian does have some regrets, but not that he didn’t let Rob and Fab sing or help them develop as vocalists. “If I had it to do over, perhaps it would have been smarter to have them all together on stage, have the original people singing and Rob and Fab just dancing.” It’s hard to work out why he didn’t actually do that in the first place.
Thrown under the bus by Farian, and abandoned by their “fair-weather friends” Rob and Fab were left to face the music on their own. Their record label, Arista, effectively disowned them. According to one Arista employee, the platinum disks for Milli Vanilli were taken down the same day.
They gave a press conference shortly after Farian’s bombshell. While sitting down to answer questions Rob sang the chorus and then Fab rapped a few lines from “Girl You Know It’s True” to prove it’s not beyond them. They then offered to return the Grammy and suggested giving the award to the session singers. The academy would later officially rescind the award, the first and only time this has happened.
Milli Vanilli were the subjects of numerous lawsuits, mostly from fans who say they were deceived, many were dismissed but the constant legal fees drained what was left of the money they had made over the last 2 years.
Frank Farian announced he was going to release the second Milli Vanilli album as planned but under the name “The Real Milli Vanilli”. The album “Moment of Truth” proved to be just that, it barely charted in Germany and bombed in the USA. The truth was, Milli Vanilli was greater than the sum of the parts.
2 years later Rob and Fab tried to make a comeback under their own names, with their own voice. A quick look at the credits shows that Fabrice had a much larger involvement in the recording. By that time Rob was struggling with depression and drug abuse. He and Fab had indulged in many drugs while on tour and while Fab had abandoned that lifestyle for Rob it was his coping mechanism.
The album, simply titled “Rob & Fab” was released on a small label and only sold around 2000 copies. Which sounds like a complete failure until you look a bit deeper. The label that eventually signed them was on the verge of folding, they could only afford to press around 2000 copies. The company went bankrupt not long after the release.
Had they been able to press more copies, they probably would have sold more. They had a lot of support, including Arsenio Hall who had them perform their debut single as Rob & Fab live on his show and they did a very good job by all accounts. Even if they only sold 1% of what Milli Vanilli sold they would still have shifted over 100,000 copies.
After failing to sell “The Real Milli Vanilli” and the same music repackaged as “Try ‘n’ B”, Farian decided he would try to make a Milli Vanilli record with Rob and Fab actually singing. They started work on the album, “Back in Attack” in 1997. Rob was still battling depression and drug addiction throughout the production of the album. He was charged with assault and robbery for which he was sentenced to 3 months in jail and 6 months of rehab. He also attempted suicide but was prevented from jumping off a hotel balcony by the police who were called by a journalist Rob had phoned to record his last words.
Farian had bailed Rob out of jail and paid for his rehab, and they eventually completed the album. However, on April 2, 1998, just prior to the promotional tour for the album Rob was found dead of a suspected alcohol and prescription drug overdose in his hotel room in Frankfurt. His death was ruled an accident. The album was never released.
In the years following the death of Rob Pilatus, Fab continued to develop as a singer and songwriter. In 2003 he released his solo album “Love Revolution” distributed through CDBaby. He also records and performs with John Davis (the voice that Fab was miming to most of the time) after they met in 2014. The project is called “Face meets voice” and they perform a selection of Milli Vanilli songs as well as some original material.
When the news broke the industry, the media, and the public were all shocked. It’s understandable the public was shocked and to a lesser extent the media too, but it strikes me as a little odd that others in the music industry were so quick to condemn Rob and Fab for their part in it all when this type of thing was not unheard of. In fact, it’s surprisingly common.
There was another case almost identical to that of Milli Vanilli, happening at the same time.
In July 1989, while Milli Vanilli’s “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” was at number 1, Black Box released “Ride On Time”. The song sampled the vocals from Loleatta Holloway’s 1980 disco hit “Love Sensation”, but in the video and in live performances the vocals were lip-synced by Katrin Quinol who was marketed as the group’s lead singer.
It was the group’s first release as Black Box, but they had released a few singles before under different names, with varying success. The group’s original line up was Daniele Davoli, Valerio Semplici, and Mirko Limoni. Their first single was called “Numero Uno” and was released in 1988 under the name Starlight Invention Group (also sometimes known as Groove Groove Melody), the song peaked at number 9 in the UK charts. They also released the track “Airport 89” under the name Wood Allen, the song only peaked at 99.
So they decided on a new name and hired French Caribbean model Katrin Quinol as the image of the group. The video for “Ride On Time” doesn’t feature Davoli, Semplici or Limoni, just Quinol miming the words while dancing and some other dancers. With sampling still a fairly new concept at the time, the general public assumed the person in the video was also the singer.
Neither Loleatta Holloway nor the writer of “Love Sensation” Dan Hartman were consulted for permission to sample the song, and they failed to mention Holloway’s vocals in the credits. They did, however, clear the use of the sound recording with the rightsholders, Salsoul Records. As Holloway had unrecouped advances from the label she would not have received any money from this agreement. As an American citizen, she was not eligible for the majority of neighbouring rights royalties that would usually be paid as the USA didn’t sign the Rome Convention. It’s also worth noting that the American neighbouring rights society Sound Exchange doesn’t recognise a sample as a performance so it isn’t eligible for any payment at all.
With no legal recourse available Holloway’s counsel engaged in a press attack on Black Box and eventually secured a settlement that paid the singer an undisclosed sum. As the writer of the original track, Hartman was able to sue the group and the court ruled in his favour, he was awarded an undisclosed fee and listed as a writer on the new recording. This writing credit would entitle him to a share of the publishing revenue from the Black Box track.
The legal action lead them to re-record the track with (uncredited) vocals by Heather Small (M People). It was released in September 1989, and the original Holloway version was pulled from distribution.
“Ride On Time” was number 1 in three countries and became the UK’s best-selling single of 1989, selling over 850,000 copies in the UK and over 1.5 million copies worldwide.
The success of the single lead to the release of an album “Dreamland”, the group drafted in Martha Wash (The Weather Girls) to record some “demos” for them. During the sessions, she recorded vocals for a number of different tracks, some original songs and a cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Fantasy”. All of Black Box’s 6 other singles, “Everybody Everybody”, “Open Your Eyes”, “Hold On”, “I Don’t Know Anybody Else”, “Strike It Up” and “Fantasy” contain vocals from the sessions with Martha Wash, none of them credit her as a vocalist and like “Ride On Time” Katrin Quinol mimes the vocals in the video and appears on the cover of the single. Quinol also toured with the group and so would mime the vocals for all the tracks at gigs.
So, in September 1990, Martha Wash sued Black Box and RCA Records for commercial appropriation. RCA settled the case out-of-court in December 1990 and agreed to pay her a “substantial” fee. RCA also signed her to an eight-album recording contract and financed her national tour. As a result of the lawsuit, there was new federal legislation introduced in the USA making vocal credit mandatory for all albums and music videos, although similar rules had long been in place in Europe anyway.
Katrin Quinol left the group in 1991 following the court cases, but Black Box went on to record another album and are still active today. The second album, without Martha Wash’s vocals, didn’t sell anywhere near what the first album sold but the remaining members of the group were not hounded out of the music industry or ridiculed like Milli Vanilli.
Katrin’s account of her time with Black Box mirrors much of the Milli Vanilli story too. She was a model by day and a go-go dancer by night, she would often sing at the end of the night. She enjoyed singing and although she didn’t want to quit her modelling career she jumped at the chance to be part of Black Box. They asked her to be their lead singer, even though by that time “Ride On Time” was already recorded and the sessions with Martha Wash were underway. Quinol assumed that like much European dance music of the time it would be limited to the clubs and any success would be brief.
After she agreed to join she was told the vocals had been recorded and she was only needed for pictures and videos, so she just treated it like a modelling job. After “Ride On Time” became a hit across Europe she felt “trapped” into continuing her promotional duties. After leaving Black Box she did try to start a music career on her own, in 1995 she released the single “Feel You” under the name Back in a Box feat. Katrin with no success.
C&C Music Factory
Shortly after winning her battle to be credited for her performances on Black Box songs, Martha Wash found herself in a similar situation again. In June 1990 she had been paid around $1000 to record a demo for David Cole and Robert Clivillés, the song she recorded was never completed but they used some of the parts to create the chorus of a new song.
The song “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” featured rapped verses performed by Freedom Williams and was released as C&C Music Factory featuring Freedom Williams. Martha Wash was credited, but only as a background singer. In the video for the single Zelma Davis mimes to Martha Wash’s vocals.
Like Katrin Quinol in Black Box, Zelma Davis was presented as the groups lead singer, she is the only female pictured on artwork and lip-syncs in all the videos. Davis did actually record some vocals for C&C Music Factory releases, just not this one.
On December 11th 1990 Martha Wash sued SONY music (coincidentally the parent company of RCA whom she sued over Black Box) for fraud, deceptive packaging and commercial appropriation. SONY was not willing to settle out of court this time, as they believed they had done nothing wrong. They had credited her performance, as a background singer, they argued that on a rap song the featured performer is the rapper and the singer of the chorus is rarely credited as a featured performer.
That is partly true, you have probably never heard the name Nanci Fletcher, yet she has sung choruses for Snoop, Dr Dre, Warren G and 2Pac, each time she was credited as a background singer and never the featured artist. Not naming them as a featured means the label isn’t obliged to pay them any royalties, they can just pay them a session fee. It also means they are counted as “non-featured” performers for the purpose of neighbouring rights payments so instead of sharing 45% of the earnings with the other featured performers they share 5% with the other session performers. As the USA is still yet to sign The Rome Convention, neighbouring rights revenue in the USA is already a fraction of what it is in the rest of the world, reducing the performer’s income even further by not crediting them as featured makes this money almost non-existent.
When the chorus vocalist is a well-known performer they are nearly always credited as a featured performer. I would consider Martha Wash to be a “well-known performer”, just for “Its Raining Men”, not to mention her work with Sylvester and the Black Box songs. She is more than deserving of a featured credit.
SONY disagreed and fought the case for 3 years before eventually reaching a settlement. They may actually have won had it not been for the precedent set by the earlier Black Box case. SONY paid a fee to Martha Wash, credited her as a lead vocalist, listed her as featured on future pressings and asked MTV to add a disclaimer that credited Wash for vocals and Zelma Davis for “visualization” to the “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” music video.
If you thought it was surprising that Martha Wash had to sue SONY twice to get credit, you’ll be even more surprised that she had to sue David Cole and Robert Clivillés twice too!
Before she recorded the vocals for what would become “Gonna Make You Sweat” she recorded a demo of a song written by Cole and Clivillés, “(You’re My One and Only) True Love”. The demo was finished off by adding backing vocals and released under the name Seduction, it was the second single released under this name the first being “Seduction” with vocals performed by Carol Cooper. After the success of the first 2 singles, Cole and Clivillés put together a line up (that didn’t include Cooper or Wash) to promote the songs and eventually record new material.
Martha Wash’s lead vocals were still on the track when it was released and she wasn’t credited on the single with the performance, when the album was eventually released she was credited as a background singer. When David Cole found out she was upset he offered her 1% of the royalties as a settlement, as this is just a fraction of what a featured artist would normally get she refused and commenced legal proceedings.
A&M Records settled the case in December 1990, just a few weeks after Frank Farian told the world the truth about Milli Vanilli. Hard not to think that was a factor in settling the case.
Phil Spector girl band The Crystals is not dissimilar to some aspects of the Milli Vanilli case. Two of their most successful singles in the early 1960’s “He’s a Rebel”, their only US #1 single and the follow up “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” #11 in the US, were both actually recorded by Darlene Love and her group The Blossoms and then released under the name The Crystals. The Crystals were apparently on tour when the track was recorded and released.
Much like Milli Vanilli, The Crystals were not the mastermind of their deception and they were upset Spector had substituted them with The Blossoms twice. Spector obviously ignored their protests as he would later use 4 recordings by The Ronnettes for the album “The Crystals sing the Greatest Hits”. As both “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” also featured on that 12 track album it means only half the tracks were actually The Crystals singing on the rather disingenuously titled album.
Later in the 1960s came the Monkees, a Beatles style pop band created for a TV show that went on to sell over 70million records. Each of the members had musical skills, they played instruments and could sing but despite being presented as a band that played their own instruments they only recorded the vocals on early recordings. Even more bizarrely they mimed playing different instruments to the ones they actually knew how to play best.
Micky Dolenz, a guitarist, pretended to play the drums, Michael Nesmith a bass player, was on guitar, Peter Tork a more experienced guitar player than Nesmith was on Bass and Davy Jones was lead vocalist despite Micky Dolenz being widely regarded as a far better singer. Davy Jones had volunteered to pretend to play the drums but it was decided that as he wasn’t the tallest of the group, sitting behind the drums would not be a good look. So it’s clear here that much like Milli Vanilli, the look was far more important to the producers than actual musical ability.
The biggest difference between the Monkees and Milli Vanilli is that the members of the Monkees were given the opportunity to develop as musicians and recording artists. For the first few months, they were only allowed limited input into the recordings, although Michael Nesmith contributed songs he had written from the outset. Nesmith had already released 4 singles prior to auditioning for the Monkees and after he was cast the production company behind the show bought the rights to his songs so they could use them in the show. Over the years they learned how to play the instruments they were pretending to play and became accomplished multi-instrumentalists.
They played instruments and sung on their later recordings, by 1967 they had sacked their producer and musical director Don Kirshner and were now functioning more independently. However, ratings for the show declined along with record sales and the show was cancelled in 1968. The band continued to release music with their founding line up until 1971 and have had revivals and reunions in each of the following decades. The two surviving members of the group, Michael Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz still tour as the Monkees.
After being dismissed as the producer and musical director for the Monkees, Don Kirshner went on to create another band for a TV Show. The Archies were a fictional band from the Saturday morning animated comedy show, The Archie Show, based on the Archie comics.
They released 5 studio albums and a greatest hits compilation in the ’60s and ’70s, they had 4 top 40 singles in the USA and their biggest hit “Sugar, Sugar” was number 1 in USA, UK and Canada, and sold over 6 million copies. The recordings were made by session musicians who were only paid a session fee and the record sleeves didn’t credit any of them.
The voice actors from the TV show didn’t contribute to the recorded music released under the names of their characters. This was pop music recorded by anonymous session musicians, released under an assumed name and presented to the public with an image considered more commercially viable. Sound familiar?
It doesn’t end there. In the late 1960s The Temptations were having issues with one of their founding members and lead singers. The previously tee-total Paul Williams had developed a heavy drinking problem that was affecting both his health and his ability to perform. By 1969 the group’s de-facto leader Otis Williams (no relation) had enlisted Richard Street to sing Williams’ parts from behind a curtain off stage. Paul Williams would be singing, but not particularly well so his microphone was muted and the audience would only hear Richard Street’s voice.
Street had sung with some of the group before, in an earlier line up when they were known as Otis Williams & The Distants. He eventually officially joined The Temptations in 1971, after performing with them from off stage for 2 years, by which time Paul Williams wasn’t able to perform the dance routines that had become the group’s trademark. This wasn’t made public until a lot later when former members started releasing autobiographies and memoirs.
In 1981 record producer Ken Gold put together a group of session singers and released two medleys of 1960s pop songs called “Back to the 60s” and “Back to the 60s part 2” under the group name Tight Fit. The first of the singles went to number 4 on the UK charts but instead of the session singers who sang on the record, a group of actors was hired to front the group when they first appeared on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops. In 1982 a different producer recorded a cover version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with Roy Ward, the former drummer and percussionist from the British 1970s band City Boy, on lead vocals. The song was also released under the name Tight Fit, but this time a different line up fronted by model Steve Grant appeared on Top of the Pops. The song went to number 1 and the new line up actually recorded songs for an album, but nothing matched the success of “Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Steve Grant still tours nearly 40 years later on the back of the song he just mimed to on TV.
The first ghost singer?
The practice of recording vocals that would later be associated with someone else dates back to the early days in the film industry. Professional singers would record songs for musicals that would then be lip-synced to the actors. A good example of this is Marni Nixon, in 1948 when she was 18 she provided the singing voice of 11-year-old child actor Margaret O’Brien. Over the years she sang for Deborah Kerr in “The King and I” (Kerr won a Golden Globe for best actress for that movie), Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and dubbed in some of Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend”, among her many uncredited contributions.
When she provided the singing for Natalie Wood in West Side Story they not only didn’t credit her, they didn’t even tell Wood herself! All of this lead Time Magazine to call her “The Ghostess with the Mostest”.
Now, you might think that these examples from movies aren’t the same as Milli Vanilli…until you consider the fact that these performances were also released on record as movie soundtracks. With no mention that the actors aren’t singing on the records.
The more recent examples in pop music are too countless to mention them all, but artists like Jennifer Lopez, TLC, Selena Gomez and Britney Spears have all released records that employed “ghost singers”. Even Michael Jackson has 3 songs released, albeit posthumously, that are widely believed to not be the late singers own voice. Something SONY seemed to back up in court documents.
The only real differences between all the artists that did it before Milli Vanilli is the speed at which Milli Vanilli became successful, and the fact they won a Grammy.
When you look at all the examples dating back to the very beginning of the music industry, and the now ubiquitous use of Auto-tune, Melodyne and other pitch correction technology it’s hard not think that Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan were dealt with a little harshly.
There’s even a part of me that thinks Milli Vanilli should get their Grammy back.