Frank Farian, the man behind Milli Vanilli, is dead at 82

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Frank Farian, the man behind Milli Vanilli, is dead at 82
He had worldwide success with the disco group Boney M. He was better known for a duo that had hit records but, it turned out, only pretended to sing.

by Alex Williams

NEW YORK, NY.- Frank Farian, the hit-making German record producer who masterminded the model-handsome dance-pop duo Milli Vanilli and propelled them to Grammy-winning heights — until it was revealed that they were little more than lip-syncing marionettes — died Tuesday at his home in Miami. He was 82.

His death was announced by Philip Kallrath of Allendorf Media, a spokesman for Farian’s family.

Farian was no stranger to the pop charts in the late 1980s, when he brought together Rob Pilatus, the son of an American serviceman and a German dancer, and Fab Morvan, a French singer and dancer, to create one of pop music’s most sugary bonbons.

He was born Franz Reuther on July 18, 1941, in Kirn, Germany. His father, a furrier turned soldier, was killed during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, leaving Franz and his older siblings, Hertha and Heinz, to be raised by their mother, a schoolteacher.

Coming of age on a steady diet of American rock ’n’ roll records, Farian eventually became a performer himself. He rose to the top of the West German charts in 1976 with “Rocky,” a bouncy, German-language interpretation of a hit by the American country artist Dickey Lee.

He earned far more acclaim as a producer, bringing together the flashy 1970s Eurodisco vocal group Boney M., which hit it big in Europe with hits like “Daddy Cool” (1976), “Rasputin” (1978) and “Rivers of Babylon” (1978), while attaining modest success in the United States.

Like Boney M., Milli Vanilli was built around telegenic performers who knew how to rock a shimmering stage costume and move their feet. Unlike Boney M., they did not actually sing — at least not the music that made them famous.

Pilatus and Morvan later insisted that they did not start out intending to hoodwink the record-buying public. They had been earning attention, if not much money, performing cover numbers at nightclubs when they wangled an audition with Farian, who in the late 1980s was one of Germany’s top record producers. It did not go well.

While Farian was struck by their camera-ready image, their singing was a non-starter; he deemed their brief performance “very bad,” as he explained in a 1997 episode of the VH1 series “Behind the Music.”

Still, Farian saw potential. He had recently recorded a new song called “Girl You Know It’s True” with session musicians, including vocalists Brad Howell and Johnny Davis, but did not believe the singers had the look to beguile young MTV audiences.

“Then I had my crazy idea,” he told VH1, recalling how he pitched the two on serving as the faces for his new act.

While initially resistant to the idea, the future Milli Vanilli stars could not pass up a record deal from “this mogul, superstar, famous, multimillionaire” record producer, as Pilatus told VH1. “All right,” he recalled thinking, “as long as I get paid.”

Milli Vanilli made history, for all the wrong reasons. Their smash album, “Girl You Know It’s True” (1989) yielded three No. 1 singles in the U.S., and by early 1990 it had sold more than 10 million copies, according to VH1, as the putative pop stars toured the world, enchanting audiences with their squeal-inducing dance moves while mouthing the vocals of others.

Milli Vanilli survived one public embarrassment after a concert in Bristol, Connecticut, in July 1989, at which the prerecorded vocal track began skipping, repeating the fragment “Girl, you know it’s …” and leaving a shaken Pilatus to race from the stage. Things really started to unravel after the act took home a Grammy Award for best new artist in 1990, inspiring a closer look at the mechanics of this platinum-selling pop machine.

“I was not happy when everyone was saying, ‘Yay, Milli Vanilli won the Grammy,” Farian told VH1 — such attention, he said, made him want to sink under a table. He eventually confessed to the scheme, and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences rescinded their Grammy. Both Farian and executives of Arista, the record company that released Milli Vanilli’s album in the United States, said the label had not been told that Pilatus and Morvan did not sing on it.

Even so, Farian was unrepentant. In a 1990 interview with The Washington Post, he called the ruse an “open secret.” Milli Vanilli, he said, was “a project.”

“It was two people in the studio, and two people onstage,” he said. “One part was visual, one part recorded. Such projects are an art form in themselves, and the fans were happy with the music.”

If nothing else, the venture was a commercial windfall, and added to Farian’s reputation as Germany’s top producer.

Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

As for Milli Vanilli, the two men at the eye of the storm later attempted a comeback, which was cut short in April 1998 when Pilatus, who had long battled substance abuse, was found dead of a heart attack at 32 in a hotel in Frankfurt, Germany.

The infamous act of which he was a face lived on — as one of pop music’s great punchlines. But, as a member of its management team, Todd Headlee, suggested to VH1, maybe there is another way to look at it: “I mean, they shouldn’t have won the Grammy, they should have won the Oscar.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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