Frank Farian, the Wizard of Oz-like Svengali behind the rise and fall of disgraced late 1980s musical duo Milli Vanilli has died at age 82. BBC News reported that Farian’s family released a statement on Tuesday (Jan. 23) that the elusive German producer/songwriter had passed away at his home in Miami of undisclosed causes; at press time Billboard had not independently confirmed Farian’s death.
The studio maestro born in Kirn, Germany on July 18, 1941 began his career in the mid-1960s as a vocalist for the rock band Frankie Boys Schatten. After struggling to break through, Farian hit upon the formula that would twice take him to the highest heights of global success via his first musical sleight of hand vehicle, pop group Boney M.
A talented vocalist and arranger with a golden ear for hooks, Farian assembled the 1970s disco funk group featuring three female vocalist — Marcia Barrett, Liz Mitchell and Maizie Williams — and fronted by Aruban go-go dancer Bobby Farrell after breaking through in a number of European markets in 1975 with the bouncy “Do You Wanna Bump.” The song was credited to “Boney M,” despite Farian singing all the high and low vocal parts. In a genius marketing move, Farian decided to put a face to his creation in time to release Boney M’s 1976 debut album, Take the Heat Off Me.
Unbeknownst to the group’s fans, Farian sang all the male lead vocals for the group that would go on to sell more than 100 million records thanks to such quirky, but undeniable dance floor jams as “Rasputin,” “Daddy Cool,” the Bobby Hebb cover “Sunny” and the swaying, reggae-lite “Rivers of Babylon.” The group released two more albums in quick succession and achieved global success, with seemingly little concern for the open secret that Farrell — who died in 2010 at 61 — was not its actual lead singer, but rather a gifted performer who fronted the band with the assist of more polished backing vocalists.
Farian also later revealed that in addition to Farrell, Williams had not sung on the group’s albums either. By 1981 fractures had formed in Boney M and Farrell split following a fall-out with Farian, cueing up another soon-to-be-familiar trope in the producer’s modus operandi: replacing the non-singing lead singer with a fresh face, in this case singer Reggie Tsiboe. Boney M released eight studio albums in total to diminishing returns, reuniting and splitting up a number of times throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Credited with helping to popularize the Eurodisco sound and establishing one of Germany’s most technologically advanced 1980s recording studios with his Frankfurt-based FAR Studios, Farian had another, even bigger, trick up his sleeve. FAR was where Farian cooked up his second, and even more globally successful second act: Milli Vanilli. After hearing the hip-hop/R&B track “Girl You Know It’s True” by Baltimore-based hip-hop group Numarx in a German nightclub, Farian hatched his another studio creation, again recording the basic tracks on his own and hiring a group of mostly ex-pat American session singers, rappers and musicians to lay down the vocals for the group that would score three No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100.
Needing a face for the band whose version of “Girl You Know It’s True” was blowing up all over Europe, Farian spotted aspiring singers dancers Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan in a club and hired them to perform as the frontmen of his latest phantom act. The photogenic, high-energy pair perfectly fit the part, with their signature flowing braids, skintight bicycle shorts and peppy dance moves. The songs on the European debut album, All or Nothing, were so catchy, in fact, that legendary American record label boss Clive Davis of Arista Records licensed the collection and released a revamped version in March 1989 called Girl You Know It’s True.
With the addition of the soon-to-be No. 1 Diane Warren-penned balled “Blame It on the Rain” — alongside No. 1 hits “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” and “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” — Milli mania took over the world. The American version spent 78 weeks on the Billboard 200 albums chart — peaking at No. 1 for 8 weeks, making Milli Vanilli one of the year’s most dominant pop acts.
But if anyone had been listening to the press interviews the duo were doing in Europe they would have quickly surmised that something was rotten in Frankfurt, given the thick accents and thin command of the English language by Munich-bred Pilatus and Paris-born Morvan. Once the group joined the Club MTV tour in 1989, where repeated equipment failures with the pre-recorded vocals made it crystal clear that Rob and Fab were lip synching, the charade began to fall apart.
With both men pushing hard to sing on the follow-up album — a request that Farian vehemently shut down — their growing intransigence created a tension that would result in one of the biggest scandals in Grammy Awards history. After winning the Grammy for best new artist at the 1990 awards, where they also bucked history by lip synching during their performance, Farian admitted to the ruse in a Nov. 15, 1990 press conference. That admission resulted in Milli Vanilli getting dumped from Arista and having the ignoble asterisk as the only act in Grammy history to have their award taken back.
Farian shrugged off the pearl clutching by some in the American media — as well as a handful of fans who sued Arista and parent Company BMG in a class action that resulted in refunds for concert tickets and albums purchased — by blithely telling the Washington Post at the time that the group was, “one part was visual, one part recorded. Such projects are an art form in themselves, and the fans were happy with the music.”
In addition to his work with MV and Boney M, Farian produced and mixed Meat Loaf’s 1986 album Blind Before I Stop and his high-tech FAR studio was where Stevie Wonder recorded his best-selling single ever, 1984’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Farian kept a low profile throughout much of the 2000s and revealed in 2022 that he’d undergone heart surgery that reportedly included the implanting of a pig heart valve. His former assistant/girlfriend Ingrid “Milli” Segieth, who provided the inspiration for MV’s name, told German paper Bild that she’d seen Farian over the new year in Miami and that he was “physically very weak, but was still full of energy” and working the studio all day on new music.
The producer was markedly absent in this year’s Milli Vanilli biopic — which featured commentary from this writer — after the film’s director was unable to get the reclusive music maker to agree to an interview.
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