Honestly (We Think), the Real Milli Vanilli Turns Up with a New LP And, This Time, No Video Stand-Ins
01/14/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
German record producer Frank Farian sits in his cluttered office near Frankfurt, Germany, mulling the Great Milli Vanilli Caper. It was Farian, 49, who produced the group's Grammy-earning album, Girl You Know It's True, then signed dancers Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan to lip-sync the vocals for the LP's videos. And it was Farian—judging by what the producer is saying now—who witnessed some of the most bizarre moments his fake-singer scam inspired.
Take that day in October when Pilatus, his ego inflated by the album's success, called to ask for a remix on an upcoming single. "He said, 'Make my voice louder,' " recalls Farian, "which was funny, when you think of it now, because it wasn't his voice."
Soon after, of course, Pilatus and Morvan were exposed as fakes and sent packing off to Palookaville. And now? Why, it's the real Millis stepping forth to get their due. Brad Howell, 46, and John Davis, 36, the expatriate Americans who were the principal vocalists on that original 10 million-selling LP, are about to appear (on disc and video) as singers in a new-and-for-real Milli Vanilli. This time they're teaming with Gina Mohammed, an 18-year-old daughter of Americans living in Germany; Icy Bro (real name Leonard Slater), a 20ish rapping GI stationed in Frankfurt; and Ray Horton, 25, another expatriate rock und roller. The album of newly written, '60s-influenced soul music—titled, appropriately, Moment of Truth—'arrives this month and has already attracted almost 3 million advance orders, boasts Farian, who is again the producer.
For Howell and Davis, such high visibility might seem strange indeed. Howell came to Germany in 1966 as a drummer with Wilson Pickett's band, decided to stay and now lives in Offenbach. Having collaborated with Farian for more than a decade as vocalist, percussionist and songwriter (he wrote four of the tunes on Girl You Know It's True), he is a longtime studio player and admits his middle-aged spread would limit MTV appeal. The idea of stand-ins like Pilatus and Morvan lip-syncing to his voice on videos didn't seem all that unusual. "I thought, why not let the young boys please the young people?" Howell says.
Davis, who is married to a German and has two children, was originally stationed in Germany with the Army in the 1970s. A bassist, guitarist and singer, he is another veteran studio man accustomed to his role. "You get used to it," he says. "You'd see this guy playing the bass on TV and then realize it's not him playing, but you."
The ploy is an old favorite of Farian's, who is a former chef, singer and disco manager. Born Franz Reuther in Kirn, Germany, he produced a 1976 disco hit titled "Daddy Cool," in which a dancer lip-synced on TV to Farian's vocals. "The practice of borrowing voices has a long history," he says unashamedly. "There are plenty of singers who can sing as well as Prince, but no one looks as good as Prince. That's the problem. Without TV, without videos and MTV, you cannot do business."
Even so, Farian contends that it was Pilatus and Morvan who first approached him looking for work as song-and-dance surrogates. "They told me if I had good music to perform, they were there," he says. "They had made the same offer to someone else only six months before."
With Pilatus and Morvan signed, Farian then completed taping the LP's vocals under security as tight as a NATO spy maneuver. Howell and Davis were allowed in and out of the recording studio only under cover of darkness, and they each recorded separately, unaware of the other's role. Even Gina Mohammed, who recorded backup vocals on weekends, ended up believing that Pilatus and Morvan were actually the stars. She later appeared on a German TV show with the pair and says that even "when I watched them getting the Grammy, I still thought they were the real Milli Vanilli."
Meanwhile, Pilatus and Morvan were kept just as much in the dark. Although they had met Howell in the studio once, neither had ever met Davis. The latter recalls being in Munich one day last year when the pair were busily autographing photos for fans. Davis puckishly requested one and says that Pilatus, when he handed it over, "did not know who I was and had never seen my face. I wasn't hurt. It was just very funny."
But the joke had worn thin by last year's Grammy Awards when Pilatus and Morvan, who owed so much to so many, thanked no one at all. "If you have any kind of respect for people and their feelings." says Davis, who watched the broadcast from his apartment in Nuremberg, "and you know other people are making you rich and they are not getting so rich like you, you can at least say thank you." Howell concurs. "They didn't have to mention names," he says, "just the people behind the scenes."
Even more upsetting was the faux Millis' decision to begin a 108-city tour last March. " 'I sent them a telegram forbidding them to do it," says Farian, "because I knew they wouldn't be able to last."
For his part, Davis now says he may sue the pair for lost income. "They were allowed to use our voices on the record, but not on the tour," he snaps. "Here I am with a wife and two kids, and they're tearing up hotels at the cost of thousands of dollars."
Farian believes the grand illusion failed because "the success was too big. The situation became monstrous.... [Pilatus and Morvan] wanted to sing on the second album. Their voices aren't that good. I couldn't fulfill that condition." In November, after learning about an upcoming book on the pair, Farian finally stepped forward and revealed all. "I'm relieved that the truth has come out," says the belatedly contrite producer. "It was a crazy idea, and I'm not going to do it again."
The fact is, of course, he may not have a choice—at least this time. The real Millis, with fame finally in their grasp and plans for a U.S. tour in the works, insist they'll hold him to his vow. "The dancers are gone," proclaims Howell. "Here come the singers."
—Steve Dougherty, Rhea Shoenthal in Frankfurt