Djrobblog looks back at the 30th anniversary of one of the biggest scandals in music history.
How did those two lean, modelesque black guys with thick European speaking accents and no singing experience whatsoever pull off one of the biggest fake-outs in pop music history?
When “visual artists” Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan first graced MTV’s video playlists in early 1989 in the music video for the song “Girl You Know It’s True,” no one could have predicted what the next 22 months would bring for the, um, singing duo billed as Milli Vanilli.
“Girl You Know It’s True,” their début single, was released in Europe during the summer of 1988 and would eventually cross over to America after New York radio and dance clubs began playing it stateside. The infectious love song with a melody rap set to a dance beat slowly began to spread throughout the country and eventually made its début on the American charts on January 7, 1989. MTV would later join the party by featuring the very photogenic Rob and Fab in heavy rotation as they jumped, danced goofily, chest-bumped and high-fived, all the while lip-syncing in the video as artists do.
Except, unlike other artists, the two models who were also being marketed as “The Brothers of Soul” had never sung a lick of “Girl You Know It’s True” – in the studio or otherwise.
The brainchild of Frank Farian, a white German record producer who’d been very successful in Europe – most notably with the disco acts Eruption (“I Can’t Stand The Rain”) and Boney M (“Rivers of Babylon,” “Ma Baker” and “Daddy Cool” among others), Milli Vanilli was a bad idea-turned-lucrative before it all went horribly wrong. Rob and Fab were merely pawns in Farian’s scheme during the image-conscious MTV era, and their voices were nowhere to be heard on record.
The lead-singing duties, as we would later find out, went to the “background singers” (that’s how they were credited on the album): John Davis, Brad Howell and Charles Shaw. Those three carried the tunes so well, in fact, that Farian enlisted them to record the sound-alike and equally infectious follow-up single “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” and the rest of Milli Vanilli’s début album (billed as All Or Nothing in Europe).
With Rob and Fab under contract until March 1991, there was little they could do to get out of the deepening scam, despite their stated desires to either sing on Milli Vanilli’s next record or abandon Farian’s carefully crafted con-job altogether.
With leaving not an easy option for the two visual artists, and the band’s European success firmly in hand, Farian shopped Milli Vanilli in the United States and Arista Records chief Clive Davis signed them. Arista repackaged the All Or Nothing album as Girl You Know It’s True here in the U.S, added some new tracks (including “Blame It On The Rain”) and the rest, as they say in show biz, was history.
(See the below clip of Milli Vanilli 1989’s performance on Soul Train followed by a very interesting interview with host Don Cornelius)
Eventually, “Girl You Know It’s True” – the single – topped charts worldwide, hitting the top five in 14 countries including reaching No. 1 in Germany, Austria and Spain. It peaked at No. 2 here in America, which paved the way for four follow-up singles – three or which hit No. 1: “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” and “Blame It On The Rain.”
By the time their fifth and last American hit, “All or Nothing,” fell out of the top 40 in March 1990, Milli Vanilli’s five singles from their début album had logged 59 straight weeks in the top 40 (and ultimately 66 straight weeks on the Hot 100). They had a single listed on the Hot 100 in every week of 1989 and some of their songs would peak and begin their descents while their predecessors were still charting.
The group’s début album went on to sell close to seven million copies in the U.S. alone, spending eight weeks at No. 1 and 41 weeks in the top ten in 1989-90. Milli Vanilli racked up multiple American Music Awards and a Grammy for Best New Artist.
But Rob and Fab’s dark secret loomed large and it wouldn’t be long before the truth was out. As for Grammy night, can you imagine the little voices screaming in the duo’s heads as the nominees were called and the winner was about to be revealed: “please don’t let it be us! Please DON’T let it be us.”
Alas, they were the winners, and nine months after their Grammy victory, the secret was out. Farian called a press conference in November 1990 to announce what many had speculated: that Rob and Fab had not sung any of the songs on the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning No. 1 album, Girl You Know It’s True. The true singers’ names were later revealed and the whole Milli Vanilli facade came crumbling down.
Five days after Farian’s announcement, in an unprecedented move, the National Academy Of Recording Arts and Sciences rescinded Milli Vanilli’s Grammy for Best New Artist. Soon Arista Records deleted the Girl You Know It’s True album from its catalog – also an unprecedented move for an album as successful as Girl was.
Rob and Fab were down but not completely out… yet. In an attempt at redemption, the two recorded new material as a duo under their own names and actually sang on the record. Unfortunately, the project, which included the single “We Can Get It On” (video below), went nowhere and their downward spiral continued.
Sadly in 1998, while on the verge of a Milli Vanilli comeback in which the two models were purportedly going to actually sing, Rob Pilatus’ life ended near Frankfurt, Germany at the age of 32. His death was ruled accidental with the suspected cause being a combined alcohol and prescription drug overdose. It followed a troubled existence that included various suicide attempts and a prison stint for assault and attempted robbery.
His partner, Fab Morvan, continues to make the circuit and often does interviews about his and Rob’s experience with Farian and Milli Vanilli. He also connected with one of the real vocalists from Girl You Know It’s True, John Davis, on a project in 2015.
As for Farian, although he was the mastermind behind the scam, he escaped largely unscathed. Unbeknownst to many, he had made somewhat of a career out of creating recording acts that were visually fronted by people who didn’t sing on the records, including his second-most famous Boney M, in which Farian’s own voice was lip-synced by another “visual artist” – Bobby Farrell – in the song’s videos and covered by Farrell during live shows. Farian continued to have success as a producer well into the 1990s with dance groups like Le Bouche (“Be My Lover”) and Le Click.
Now, 30 years after “Girl You Know It’s True” first graced American airwaves and dance floors, djrobblog remembers Milli Vanilli – both Rob and Fab and the singers we never got to see – with this retrospective.
As a capper to this 30-year anniversary look back at the group we hated to love – but loved nonetheless – click this link to see 12 facts, myths and other trivia you always wanted to know about Milli Vanilli, their album Girl You Know It’s True and their huge 1989-90 success, but dare not ask.
And here’s the video that started it all… “Girl You Know it’s True.”
R.I.P. Rob Pilatus