When Milli Vanilli burst onto the music scene in the late 1980s, manufactured groups had been around for years. But while acts like the Monkees and the Partridge Family made it publicly known that they didn't necessarily play the instruments - or even perform the vocals, in some cases - and credited the musicians who did, the same can't be said for Milli Vanilli. Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan were presented as both the face and talent of Milli Vanilli. The duo, their producers, and others connected to the group went to great lengths to keep up the ruse while keeping the identity of the real singers a secret.
For a brief time, the hoax was remarkably successful; Milli Vanilli made chart history, selling millions of records and earning instant fame. But when it was discovered that Pilatus and Morvan had not provided any vocals on the recordings and had lip-synced their way through live performances, the fallout was intense.
Here is how Milli Vanilli - whose name was claimed to be a Turkish phrase meaning "positive energy" but in reality was taken from a defunct disco in Berlin - went from Grammy-winning pop music sensation to a punchline in pop culture history in the span of less than three years.
Milli Vanilli, a pop/R&B/dance group from Germany, burst on the pop scene in Europe in the summer of 1988. Fronting the group was 23-year-old Rob Pilatus and 22-year-old Fabrice Morvan.
In May 1988, Pilatus and Morvan began a four-month-long promotional tour of France, Italy and Spain to promote their debut single, "Girl You Know It's True." With their good looks and distinctive appearance (hair extensions, spandex shorts, and thigh-high boots), the charismatic duo quickly built an audience.
"Girl You Know It's True" hit No. 1 on the German charts in August 1988 and stayed there for a total of six weeks. It also charted in the Top 5 in several other European countries.
The European success of the duo's debut album, All Or Nothing, led to an American release through Arista Records. The revised and retitled version, Girl You Know It's True, featuring the titular single, was released in early 1989.
Milli Vanilli quickly became a huge success in the States. "Girl You Know It's True" peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was certified platinum in April 1989. A few months later, "Blame It On The Rain" hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making Milli Vanilli the first duo or group in chart history to have three Hot 100 No. 1 songs off of a debut album. The album, meanwhile, was certified as 6x platinum in the US.
Pilatus and Morvan, both dancers and part-time models, had met at a dance club in the mid-1980s. Both wanted to break into the music business, so they decided to team up. By 1987, they had earned a reputation as a dance duo in the Munich club scene. They even recorded an album for a small German label, but it had little commercial success.
The duo's work caught the attention of Frank Farian, a well-known German music producer. Hopeful that Farian would hire them to do background vocals on some of his projects, the duo met him at his studio in Frankfurt in 1988. When they arrived, the producer was playing a demo of a song called "Girl You Know It's True." The song, a longer version of which had been released in 1987 by US-based group the Numarx, became popular in German dance clubs. Farian had heard the song and recorded a demo with session singers on the vocals.
Although he'd found success in Europe with disco-turned-Europop group Boney M., Farian was still looking to break into the American market. He met Brad Howell and John Davis, two former American servicemen who could sing and rap, but neither man had the type of catchy look Farian felt would fit the type of bouncy pop music he wanted to produce. Pilatus and Morvan, on the other hand, had the right look.
In 1988, Farian signed Pilatus and Morvan to a contract stating that the duo would perform on recordings and obliging Farian to produce a minimum of 10 songs per year for Milli Vanilli. But Farian didn't think they were good enough vocalists.
Instead, he used Howell and Charles Shaw, another former American soldier, on the lead vocals and sisters Jodie and Linda Rocco on background vocals on the final recorded version of "Girl You Know It's True." In order to protect the secrecy about who the actual vocalists were, Farian did the recording sessions after midnight.
When Pilatus and Morvan went out on the road to promote the music, they again did not perform any of the vocals. Instead, they lip-synced and danced to pre-recorded tracks.
When Milli Vanilli came to the States in early 1989, the duo's limited command of English and their thick accents sparked questions about the legitimacy of their recordings. When these suspicions started to show up in the American press, the duo requested that they be allowed to stop doing interviews.
The first public indication that the duo lip-synced during their live shows came in Bristol, CT on July 21, 1989 during a live performance for MTV. As they lip-synced their way through "Girl You Know It's True," the recorded track jammed, resulting in the phrase "Girl You Know It" being repeated over and over. After a brief attempt to fake their way through the performance, Morvan and Pilatus ran off the stage. MTV personality "Downtown" Julie Brown ran after Pilatus and convinced him to finish the performance.
The audience seemed unaffected by the fiasco, perhaps because they believed the duo were lip-syncing to their own recorded vocals. But the incident did result in some members of the media raising questions about the legitimacy of the act.