On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the beginning of one of the biggest music scandals in history, djrobblog thought it would be the perfect time to check out a dozen facts, figures and myths about Milli Vanilli, or more specifically Fab Morvan of France and the late German native Rob Pilatus, the two visual artists at the center of it all.
Under the management of Frank Farian, the famed German music producer behind several disco groups during the 1970s, Milli Vanilli created one of the biggest albums of 1989, Girl You Know It’s True, which included five top-5 hits in Billboard – three of which reached No. 1: “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” and “Blame It On The Rain.”
The album sold 6 million copies in America and won multiple awards, including the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1990. The Grammy was rescinded nine months later when the lip-syncing sham was exposed and Rob and Fab became permanent musical footnotes.
The song that started it all was the album’s title track (in America), which debuted in the fall of 1988 in the U.S. and started Milli Vanilli’s historic run on the Billboard charts in January 1989.
With this article, Djrobblog remembers their incredible story with a dozen facts, myths and trivia about Milli Vanilli, their songs and their sad but unforgettable legacy.
1. Milli Vanilli Wasn’t First. The song “Girl You Know It’s True” was originally recorded by an American group from Baltimore, Maryland called Numarx. That original version never charted in the states but became a big club hit in Germany, which is how it likely caught Farian’s attention. Here’s a video of it.
2. Was it rap or not? When Billboard Magazine inaugurated its “Hot Rap Singles” chart in March 1989, it was already ten years late to the party as rap music had dotted the magazine’s pop and soul charts all decade. But imagine the slap in the face to hip-hop when one of the songs on that first rap chart was Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True” – at No. 5. It would eventually reach No. 2 (behind “Self Destruction” by the Stop The Violence movement). Cooler heads prevailed when the group’s next sing-song rap single, “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” was deemed ineligible for the rap chart.
3. April Fool’s Peak. As the band’s signature tune, “Girl You Know It’s True” is the first song that comes to mind when the name Milli Vanilli is mentioned. However, unlike its three immediate successors, “Girl You Know It’s True” never reached No. 1 on the American charts. The song stopped at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 1, 1989. The fact that “Girl You Know It’s True” peaked at No. 2 on April Fool’s Day might’ve been the first sign that we were being duped.
4. Turkey baloney. Contrary to their management’s marketing campaign – and what continues to be published in print and other media – the term “Milli Vanilli” is NOT Turkish for positive energy, as the band and its management claimed. Its literal English translation is “national vanilli.” In other words, it doesn’t even appear that Vanilli is even a Turkish word. Farian and company were just wrong on all fronts.
5. Year–Long Duping. Milli Vanilli became the first duo to ever spend more than an entire year in the top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart without interruption. Their streak ran from February 4, 1989, when “Girl You Know It’s True” debuted, all the way to March 17, 1990, the last week “All Or Nothing” was in the top 40 (at No. 30). That was a total of 59 straight weeks with at least one and often two songs in the top 40.
6. Lyrical Paradox. The song “All Or Nothing” is itself a lyrical study in boldness that – upon further listen – could have also foretold the band’s fate. Consider the following lyrics: “George Michael or Marvin Gaye…still it’s the same in you.” That line was likely a jab at those who shunned George Michael for his success in the late 1980s as a white artist on the R&B charts and in the R&B categories of various awards shows. However, comparing Marvin Gaye to George Michael is some serious apples and oranges. Maybe the distinction was something the song’s writers, which included Farian and one of the real singers, Brad Howell, couldn’t appreciate given the scam they were involved in.
7. They said that? Or consider this “All Or Nothing” line: “Something’s gotta show when you’re living under heat.” There couldn’t have been a more foretelling lyric than that one, as Milli Vanilli was certainly living under a lot of heat by the time “All Or Nothing” peaked in 1990.
8. Don’t blame MTV. Everyone blamed the band’s eventual downfall on a backing track that got stuck on the line “Girl You Know It’s True” during a Club MTV Live performance, but lots of artists lip-sync to backing tracks, and sometimes those tracks skip. The reality (and the difference) was, Pilatus and Morvan were lip-syncing to other singers’ vocals. The MTV Live flub didn’t doom Milli Vanilli, but it didn’t turn down the increasing scrutiny the duo was facing about its legitimacy either.
9. Rob and Fab Part Deaux. “Rob and Fab” recorded an album under that name using their own vocals after the MV scandal first broke, but it was not successful (about 2,000 copies sold). They later were on the verge of a comeback in 1998 as Milli Vanilli – but this time with the two models actually doing the singing (with Farian at the production helm and some of the original singers providing background vocals). It was not to be as Pilatus’ untimely death in 1998 derailed the project.
10. Will the real Milli Vanilli stand up? In 2016, Fab Morvan connected with one of the original singers, John Davis, for a collaboration in which both guys sang. The duo was fittingly billed as Face Meets Voice. Their song “Freedom” is available on streaming services and is tagged below. The two have also made live appearances and a video clip of them performing a medley of Milli Vanilli’s hits is also linked below.
11. Myth or not? Several lawsuits emerged after the MV scandal broke – many under the various false advertising laws in different legal jurisdictions. It was reported that a federal judge ultimately ruled that people who’d purchased the Girl You Know It’s True album could get a refund of their money.
12. Who was the bad guy here? Frank Farian escaped mostly unscathed after his preemptive strike in which he exposed the truth about Milli Vanilli during a press conference. But he was the true bad guy in this situation, despite his attempts to redeem himself years later with their ill-fated comeback album. Rob and Fab took nearly all the criticism and the ridicule, and at least one of their lives was ruined as a result of their historic collapse.
13. Did he or didn’t he know? Few people talked about Arista Records – the duo’s label in America – and its then-president Clive Davis’ role in the scandal. It was reported by the L.A. Times in November 1990 that anybody who ever worked closely with Milli Vanilli “knew that these guys don’t sing their own material,” according to a quote from the band’s manager, Todd Headlee. He added that “every record company executive at Arista knew it” and that people were made to sign a confidentiality clause binding them to stay silent. Of course, Arista Records maintained at the time that they couldn’t have known about the fake vocalists as they were merely distributors of an album that had been recorded months earlier and they were never in the studio when it happened. Hmmm.
Okay, maybe that was a baker’s dozen. But you can’t hold me accountable for my math when I’m talking about Milli Vanilli. In the meantime, relive and enjoy this In Living Color skit from 1990, which pretty much says it all.