For music freaks who were around in the 1980s, this story would sound familiar. It is the fairy-tale run of two naive foreigners – Rob and Fab – who were exploited and abandoned by the America’s shady and dangerous music industry.
History has also credited them as being the very first artiste to be stripped of a Grammy.
Robert Pilatus was from Munich (Germany) and Fab Morvan was from Paris (France). Despite the distinct language barrier, they became friends and joined forces as dancers who performed at local shows in Munich. The duo shared the goal of breaking into the music industry.
After generating local buzz, they caught the eye of major music producer, Frank Farian. He was known for his state of the art studios and was responsible for the massive success of German vocal group, Boney M. This was a dream come true for Rob and Fab… or so they thought.
The ‘Boney M’ Controversy
In the 1960/70s, a young Frank Farian was keen to attain success as a solo artist but made little impact until his song, “Baby Do You Wanna Bump”, released under the pseudonym Boney M., became a success. To avoid the spotlight, he hired performers to front for public performances
He remodeled Boney M. and they took the European music scene by storm. The lead vocals for songs on Boney M. albums in the 1970s were sung by Frank Farian, Marcia Barrett, and Liz Mitchell. Boney M.’s frontman, Bobby Farrell, was forced by Farian to lip-sync to his vocals.
Bobby Farrell eventually left the group in 1981 after clashes with Frank Farian.
Oh, you’re definitely familiar with Frank Farian’s voice. Lady Gaga sampled Boney M.’s 1977 European hit, “Ma Baker”, for her smash single, “Poker Face” in 2008.
Upon meeting Rob and Fab, Frank Farian established his role as a father figure to the duo. He offered them a record deal and a signing bonus of about $1,000. Desperately, they quickly signed the contract. No attorney, manager, or thorough assessment of the documents. It was a trap.
The Face of Scam
Frank Farian was only interested in Rob and Fab for their looks and ability to perform. He already had material recorded for them by unknown artistes who he had lie to saying it would be used for one of his projects. Rob and Fab were barred from the creative process of their music.
In 1987, a Maryland-based group, Numarx released a single, “Girl You Know It’s True”. The song generated buzz in Germany, where Frank Farian heard it in a club. He reconstructed the beat, removed the original vocals, and played it for Rob and Fab. They loved it.
After playing it for the duo, Frank Farian informed them that they would be lip-syncing on the track. (Fab couldn’t speak German at the time.) Enraged, Rob and Frank had a heated argument. Rob relayed the message to Fab who was also against it. But, too late. The contract was signed.
While the unknown artists were working on more material without their knowledge, Rob and Fab were being paid monthly to handle their necessities. Frank told them that they could be released from their contract as long as he was reimbursed. They couldn’t afford to. Trapped.
They eventually agreed to do the lipsyncing for the SOLE purpose of repaying Frank and getting released from the contract. However, when “Girl You Know It’s True” was released as their debut single in 1988, it skyrocketed. They had actually signed on for 3 albums. No turning back
“Girl You Know It’s True” (1988):
- #1 in Austria, Germany, Spain
- #2 in France, Sweden, Switzlerland
- #3 in UK, etc
The rise of Milli Vanill
When it started getting airplay in the US, Milli Vanilli caught the attention of the CEO of ARISTA Records, Clive Davis. Frank secretly struck a deal w ARISTA.
For the record, the group name “Milli Vanilli” was inspired by their love for the English band, Scritti Politti and vanilla ice cream. Plus, there was someone that used to work for Frank called Milly. Contrary to popular belief, “Milli Vanilli” is not Turkish for “positive energy”.
Milli Vanilli was signed to a production deal with Frank, who was signed to BMG then joined ARISTA.
The ARISTA vehicle thrusted the duo into the forefront of the US scene. “Girl You Know It’s True” peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 and went platinum. They received heavy rotation on MTV.
Clive Davis knew that Milli Vanilli was not singing on their records but he did not care because they were cash cows for the label. Whitney Houston was already ARISTA’s leading artist ($) but the duo served as a huge bonus for the label’s profit.
Milli Vanilli went to Frank Farian demanding that they sing for their follow-up single, “Baby Don’t Forget My Number”, but he refused.
The song was released and it was another smash.
- #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, GOLD
- #3 in Canada and Spain, #9 in Germany, #16 in the UK, etc
Their debut album, “All or Nothing” was released in Europe alone in November 1988. In 1989, it was repackaged and retitled, “Girl You Know It’s True” for release in the United States on ARISTA.
It sold 14 million copies worldwide (6x platinum in the US, DIAMOND in Canada).
Milli Vanilli was living lavishly as huge international pop stars. Money was pouring in; they hosted and attended party after party. But they were burdened by their deep, dark secret. To cope, they began drinking alchohol and dabbling in hard drugs.
Milli Vanilli was electrifying on stage. I guess we can see why Frank Farian thought they were the perfect tools for his vision.
They embarked on an eighth-month 107-city tour in America to promote their album.
In 2017, Fab revealed that the infamous “Girl You Know It’s True” live skip didn’t expose them as Behind The Music depicted. This occurred early into their career and didn’t blow their cover because they were known for the live scratches. The issue was fixed and Rob returned.
“Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” (1989) — their third single:
- #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, GOLD
- #1 in Canada (gold), Belgium, Switzerland, Austria
- #2 in the UK (silver), Germany (platinum), Sweden
- #3 in Austrailia (platinum), France
Successes, Awards & Laurels
In December 1989, Charles Shaw, the real rapper on “Girl You Know It’s True”, revealed that he was one of the three actual singers on the Milli Vanilli album and that Rob and Fab were impostors. Although Frank Farian paid him $150,000 to retract his statements, the end was near.
Milli Vanilli won three American Music Awards — Favorite Soul/R&B New Artist, Favorite Pop/Rock Single, and Favorite Pop/Rock New Artist — in 1990.
They were the most awarded artiste of the night.
In 1990, “In Living Color” aired a spoof about the duo called, “Milli Vanilli ‘Do It Yourself’ Kit”, in which Keenon and Damon Wayans mocked their accents and broken English.
Rob and Fab were stunned. People were starting to get on to them.
Milli Vanilli won “Best New Artist” at the Grammys in 1990.
Rob and Fab were devastated but masked it for the cameras.
The night they reached the pinnacle of their career also marked the beginning of the end. Everything unraveled from that point forward.
The duo and Frank Farian began butting heads. Farian wanted them to return to Germany to work on the next album (lipsync) but they refused. They secretly began gathering producers in the US to aid their transition. Frank discovered this and exposed them in the press.
It was on.
Things Fall Apart
After Frank revealed that Rob and Fab did not sing on their records, 27 different lawsuits were filed under various U.S. consumer fraud protection laws against the duo and ARISTA Records.
Millions who attended their concerts and purchased their music were allowed refunds.
The backlash was insane. The media ignored Rob and Fab’s explanation and placed all the blame on them; none on Farian or the labels who knew what happened.
“Clearly, this embarrassment has made the record industry uncomfortable in an era when style has replaced substance.” – CNN
Clive Davis dropped Milli Vanilli from ARISTA Records, deleted their album from the catalogue, and joined the mob, pretending as if he didn’t know all along that they were lip-syncing.
“Girl You Know It’s True” became the largest-selling album (14M) to ever be taken out of print.
The Journey Into Oblivion
Milli Vanilli decided to return their Grammy. Shortly after that choice, the committee announced that it was being revoked. This led to conflicting reports as to whether they returned it or if it was taken.
It was the first and only time in history that a Grammy was voided.
With one release, Milli Vanilli sold 14 million albums and 33 million singles. All 5 singles were Top 5 hits in the United States — three of which went #1, two of which went platinum, two of which went gold.
None of this mattered anymore. They were deserted by everyone.
Meanwhile, Frank Farian assembled the real singers to form the group, “The Real Milli Vanilli”. In 1991, they released “The Moment of Truth”. The album spawned three singles yet the project failed to achieve anything close to what Rob and Fab had. The group faded away.
The exposé had an especially devastating impact on Rob. He delved deeper into drugs to relieve the pain. Fab believes that drugs also filled the emotional void that stemmed from being adopted and not having family there for him after the ordeal.
Rob and Fab soldiered on. They moved to LA and recorded the album “Rob & Fab”.
A single, “We Can Get It On”, was made available for radio play shortly before the album dropped.
Unfortunately, Fab carried the project vocally because Rob became too deep into his addiction to record/function.
The Failed Renaissance
Although Rob put on a jovial front, he suffered deeply inside. Fab’s coping mechanisms were healthier. He stayed in for years and read.
In 1993, “Rob & Fab” was released. Due to Taj Records’ financial constraints, the album was only released in the US — their most critical market. The record company also did not have enough money to print copies or promote it.
“Rob & Fab” sold only 2,000 copies. It was over.
End of Robert Pilatus
Despite Fab’s efforts to help Rob choose a healthy path, he continued on a downward spiral. He was inconsistent with his sobriety and drug use led him to commit crimes.
Once, while high, he tried to jump from a 9-storey window after reflecting on what they had gone through.
In the mid-90s, Frank Farian suddenly reached out to Rob and helped to pay his legal fees for crime he had committed. This wasn’t an innocent gesture, however. He was trying to reconnect with Rob and Fab to repeat the lip-syncing scheme in order to make money off of them again.
On April 2, 1998, Robert Pilatus was found dead of an alcohol and prescription drug overdose in a Frankfurt, Germany hotel room. His death was ruled accidental. He was only 32 years old.
Fab Morvan went on to release a solo album, “Love Evolution” in 2003. He wrote, sang on, and produced all the tracks alone. He is based in Amsterdam where he works as a DJ and records music. He often does shows alongside John Davis, one of Milli Vanilli’s original voices.
Because Rob and Fab refused to lip-sync for the second album, Frank Farian blocked them from receiving royalties from the Milli Vanilli album. Back then, they only made money from touring. To date, Fab doesn’t receive a dime even though his likeness is being used.
Frank Farian is now in his late 70s and resides in Miami, Florida with his wealth. Although him and Fab do not communicate (and Fab refuses to), Fab claims he has forgiven him for what he did to him.
Frank Farian was the mastermind behind one of the biggest scandals in music history yet he has taken zero responsibility. Rob and Fab were simply pawns and were unfairly left to bear all blame. His vice and greed left Rob shattered and traumatized, which led to his early demise.
Courtesy of Frank Farian, Rob and Fab (Milli Vanilli) have been entrenched as the face of plagiarism and public deception in pop culture. They are still referenced in today’s music controversies and politics.
Anyone can fall victim when they are promised something better than what they have.
Compiled by Adebayo Folorunsho-Francis with additional report from Wikepedia and Twitter.