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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

February 21, 1990

I believe it was Andy Warhol who said that everyone in the world is deserving of their own ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, or something to that extent.  And, I believe that statement to be the absolute truth.
I believe that everybody gets their one moment to shine in their lives, and I believe that everyone has their crowning achievement at least once during their lifetime, whether it comes at age seven, or age 77.

For some people in show business or the entertainment industry, it could be the day they win an Academy Award, or star in their first movie, or have their first number one hit on the Billboard Charts.  But, for most of us, it could be something as simple as buying your first home, or having your first child, or getting a really nice promotion at work.  Even getting an A+ in science class could be considered a shining moment.
(Well, at least it was for this non-science geek, anyways.)

Today’s trip back through the Tuesday Timeline takes a look back at one duo’s crowning achievement, and the steps they took to get there.  Sadly, this story is one that does not have a happy ending, and it only showed that crowning achievements could be taken away as fast as they were earned.
But, what year are we going to go back in time to?

Well, first, let’s do what we usually do for the Tuesday Timeline.  Find out all the other important events that took place on February 21 in history.
If your name happens to be David Geffen, Tyne Daly, Alan Rickman, Christine Ebersol, William Petersen, Kelsey Grammer, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jack Coleman, Christopher Atkins, William Baldwin, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Charlotte Church, or Ellen Page, a very happy birthday to you all, and anyone else celebrating a February 21 birthday today.

And, some events that took place on February 21 include the following;

1842 – The first American patent for the sewing machine is granted to John Greenough.

1878 – The first telephone book is issued in the city of New Haven, Connecticut.

1885 – The Washington Monument is officially dedicated.

1918 – The last Carolina Parakeet dies in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo.

1925 – The New Yorker publishes its first issue.

1948 – NASCAR is founded.

1958 – The Peace symbol is created.

1965 – Malcolm X is assassinated in New York City by members of the Nation of Islam.

1995 – Steve Fossett lands in Saskatchewan, Canada after successfully being the first person to cross the Pacific Ocean in a hot-air balloon.

So, we have quite a few firsts that happened on this well as the death of Malcolm X and extinction of a species. 
Today though, we’re going to go back in time to February 21, 1990.

And the significance of this date happens to be linked to my opening spiel.
On February 21, 1990, the 32nd Annual Grammy Awards aired, and among the big winners of the night were Bette Midler, Bonnie Raitt, Michael Bolton, Linda Ronstadt, and Aaron Neville.

I specifically want to highlight one award in particular.  There were five nominees for the Best New Artist award, all of whom had huge hits during 1989 and 1990.  At the time, all five were worthy of the honour, but as we all know, unless there was a rare tie, there could only be one winner.  You can watch the clip here.

So there you have it.  Milli Vanilli managed to triumph over The Indigo Girls, Soul II Soul, Tone Loc, and Neneh Cherry to win the Best New Artist award at the 32nd Annual Grammy Awards, and when you saw them run up on stage to collect their award, you could see the excitement on their faces.  They had arrived.  They made it big.  Nothing would stop their train to success.
That is until it all came crashing down all around them. 

Before we get to that, let’s take a look at how they got to this moment.

Milli Vanilli was formed in 1988 by record producer Frank Farian (also responsible for Boney M) in Munich, Germany.  The duo consisted of Rob Pilatus and Fabrice “Fab” Morvan, models that were discovered by Farian himself.  Farian had thought that Rob and Fab had the perfect look for a new band project that he had named ‘Milli Vanilli’.  Problem was that neither Rob nor Fab had any singing experience whatsoever.
This is where the ruse begins.

As it so happened, Rob and Fab didn’t NEED to sing.  Farian had that angle covered.  By using the vocal tracks of Charles Shaw, John Davis, Brad Howell, Jodie Rocco, and Linda Rocco (whom Farian had dismissed as not having the right look for Milli Vanilli), all Rob and Fab had to do was lip-synch the concert performances, and not let on that they weren’t really singing the records, and all would be fine, according to Farian.
So, Rob and Fab did exactly that.  Sure, in photos, promo shots, and interviews, they WERE Milli Vanilli.  But, they weren’t the REAL Milli Vanilli.

You’d think that the public would have gotten wise from the start, but consider this.  Milli Vanilli released their debut album in 1988 in Europe (an album with the rather prophetic title of ‘All Or Nothing’).  When it was released, there was no evidence in the album’s liner notes that Rob and Fab actually sang the songs on the album.  There was no evidence of anybody being credited for singing on the album at all.  So, when the album was released, and the pictures of Rob and Fab were prominently displayed front and center on the cover, nobody seemed to take any notice.

During the last part of 1988, the album ‘All Or Nothing’ sold extremely well in Europe, and the success was noticed by American record label, Arista Records.  Arista immediately signed Milli Vanilli to a recording contract, and plans were in the works to re-release the album ‘All or Nothing’ to an American audience.  There were some major changes to the album though.  First, the album was retitled to the rather ironic ‘Girl You Know It’s True’.  Secondly, many of the tracks were remixed to fit the American music scene.  Lastly, some of the tracks from ‘All Or Nothing’ were ditched entirely, and replaced with some brand new songs.  The song below just happened to be one of the songs that was written specifically for the American market (and admittedly is one of this blogger’s guilty pleasures).

ARTIST: Milli Vanilli
SONG:  Blame It On The Rain
ALBUM:  Girl You Know It’s True
DATE RELEASED:  July 13, 1989
‘Girl You Know Its True’ was released in North America on March 7, 1989, and immediately the song’s title track peaked at #2 on the Billboard Charts.  ‘Blame It On The Rain’, hit #1, as did ‘Baby Don’t Forget My Number’ and ‘Girl I’m Gonna Miss You’.  As 1989 turned into 1990, a fifth single ‘All Or Nothing’ also did very well on the charts.

And in February 1990, the duo seemed to be on top, winning the Best New Artist Grammy Award.
So, what went terribly wrong?

Signs that all was not what it was claimed to be in the world of Milli Vanilli were shown during a performance in 1989.  The duo was performing in Connecticut at the Lake Compounce theme park as part of a live remote that aired on MTV that night.  All was going according to plan until they began to sing lip-synch the song ‘Girl You Know It’s True’.  At some point during their performance, the recording that was playing had become jammed, and within seconds, the singing was stuck on a continuous loop.  Embarrassed, Rob and Fab did some impromptu dancing before running off the stage. 

Girl you know it’s true?
However, it didn’t seem as though the crowd in the concert seemed to pick up on anything wrong.  According to then MTV personality Downtown Julie Brown (in the Behind The Music special on the band), the concert continued on as if nothing strange had happened.  The fans in the concert were too busy enjoying the moment to put two and two together, which is what Farian and Milli Vanilli were counting on.

But then the scheme began to unravel.  Part of it had to do with the fact that Rob Pilatus was seemingly buying into his own hype.  He proudly proclaimed in an interview with TIME Magazine in 1990 that he believed Milli Vanilli was more talented than Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger.  Quite the boastful statement, especially since, know.
There was also the fact that when Milli Vanilli’s album was released in America, all the songs were credited to Rob and Fab.  This revelation was enough for Charles Shaw to come forward to the media to let them know that he was one of the three male singers who DID sing on the Milli Vanilli record.  Frank Farian, worried that his house of cards would come crumbling down around him reportedly tried to get Shaw to recant his statements by paying him off to the tune of $150,000.  But, by this point, the public backlash had begun.

Even Rob and Fab were starting to get a change of heart about success.  They were beginning to feel that taking credit for someone else’s talent was not the way to live life.  And when they approached Farian and demanded that they be able to sing on their next album, the pressure proved too much for Farian.  In November 1990, Farian revealed that Rob and Fab did NOT sing one note on the Milli Vanilli album.  The secret was finally out, and Rob and Fab paid the price in a big way.
On November 16, 1990, their Best New Artist Grammy Award was taken away, the first and only time in the fifty-four year history of the awards ceremony that this has happened.  Shortly thereafter, Arista Records deleted the entire Milli Vanilli catalog from their records, essentially putting ‘Girl You Know Its True’ out of print.

As many as twenty-seven different lawsuits were filed against Rob, Fab, and Arista Records.  In 1991, Arista Records agreed to refund people who purchased albums and concert tickets featuring Milli Vanilli.  The refund offer was good until March 1992.

As for Milli Vanilli’s recording career, it essentially ended in 1990.  At the time that the scandal was revealed, radio stations were playing the single ‘Keep On Running’, which was supposed to be the debut single for the band’s second album.  After the scandal broke, the album was repackaged to include the photos of the artists who sang for Milli Vanilli, removing all traces of Rob and Fab from the finished cover art, and the album was given the title of ‘The Real Milli Vanilli’ (‘Moment Of Truth’ in Europe).

By then, Rob and Fab were essentially outcasts.  Even Frank Farian had seemingly abandoned them.  Despite the scandal that plagued them, Rob and Fab never gave up on their music career.  The two moved to Los Angeles where in 1993, they recorded the album ‘Rob & Fab’.  However, due to poor promotion and the inability to shake their scandalous past, the album failed to make an impression.
In 1997, Frank Farian was brought back into the lives of Milli Vanilli when he agreed to produce a comeback album for the duo...this time with Rob and Fab on vocals.  Personally speaking, the last thing that I would do is make another deal with the devil who screwed things up for me the first time, but Rob and Fab agreed.  The album was going to be titled “Back And In Attack”, and was set to be released during the spring of 1998.  Sadly, the comeback album would be overshadowed by a shocking end to one of the key players.

On April 2, 1998, Rob Pilatus was found dead in a Frankfurt hotel room at the age of 32.  Though his death was ruled accidental, it was widely documented that Pilatus had a slew of problems in the months leading up to his death, including stints in jail for robbery, and reported abuse with drugs and alcohol.  Fabrice Morvan, on the other hand, is still active in the music industry, releasing singles as late as 2011.

Now that you know the story about the rise and fall of Milli Vanilli, the question that now comes is...who’s the most to blame?
I would personally point the finger of blame mostly on Frank Farian, just because he was the one who got the lie started.  Then when the lie grew bigger and bigger, he was unable to keep the truth from being exposed.  Then when the truth came out, it seemed as though he stepped away from the background while Rob, Fab, and the record company that signed on Milli Vanilli got the brunt of the anger.  It seemed to me to be incredibly cowardly on Farian’s part.

However, there isn’t anybody who can be considered completely blameless either.  Rob and Fab had lots of opportunity to come clean about what was really happening on multiple occasions.  Who knows?  Had they been the ones to out themselves as frauds instead of Farian, they might have ended up being treated like heroes, or at the very least wouldn’t have had to endure such poison from the general public.  The fact that they didn’t makes their fall from grace sadly deserving.  It’s commendable that Rob and Fab eventually saw that the way that they were getting success wasn’t the right way to go, but unfortunately it was a little late.
If there is any sympathy out there to be had, it probably should go to the people who called themselves the ‘Real Milli Vanilli’.  Despite the ruse that Farian put on, the vocalists who did sing for Rob and Fab were quite talented.  I have no doubt in my mind that had they not gotten entangled in the scheme that Farian had orchestrated from the beginning, they might have been discovered by some other record label who would have gladly given them a contract.  They might not have been commercially marketable, but talent they had by the ton.  It’s just a shame that their talent was overshadowed by a needless scandal.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Milli Vanilli is the fact that Rob and Fab got so used to living a lie that they ended up believing their own hype.  And when the rug got pulled out from underneath them, they were left completely exposed to the world, without any means to defend themselves.
It makes me wonder what might have happened had the lies not come undone.  Would Milli Vanilli have made their career last for years, or would they have simply become a flash in the pan?  Sadly, because of the lies and the scandal, we’ll never know.

And, that is the story of a band in which February 21, 1990 should have been the best time of their lives, but ended up being the beginning of a nightmare.

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