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Scheming for success

Alfried Schmitz / gsw
February 17, 2014

The history of the pop duo Milli Vanilli reads like a Hollywood film and has all the drama of a Puccini opera, but the duo's deception is hardly unique among those driving for musical fame and success.

Milli Vanilli performing on stage (c) picture-alliance/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"Girl You Know It's True" was Milli Vanilli's first hit in 1988. The single went to number one in a number of countries, selling in the millions. The duo's debut LP also raked in revenue and topped the US charts for seven weeks. Milli Vanilli even received a Grammy for their outstanding achievements as newcomers.

Behind that grandiose success: German producer Frank Farian. Having forged the right sound, he'd then found the right faces with Fabrice Morvan from France and Robert Pilatus, a German-American.

Frank Farian (c) picture-alliance/dpa
Frank Farian - a hit producer despite the scandalsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Behind the microphone in the studio were other singers - a clear-cut case of false labeling. Everything came crashing down in 1989 during a supposedly live Milli Vanilli performance in the US during which the CD to which they were lip-synching started skipping.

Hollywood opera

The scandal grew when Charles Shaw, the real singer behind "Girl You Know It's True" went public. Farian ultimately had to admit that Milli Vanilli was a musical sham. As a result, the group's Grammy was revoked.

Pilatus and Morvan attempted to restore their reputation in the following years, performing under the name Rob & Fab. Frank Farian even tried, unsuccessfully, to help them make a comeback. In 1998, Robert Pilatus was found dead in the room of a Frankfurt hotel, apparently having overdosed on drugs and alcohol.

It's a true story that lies somewhere between Hollywood and an opera stage.

The four members of Boney M. in a press photo (c) DW
Boney M. and the singer who wasn't

No isolated case

Another of producer Frank Farian's projects got a boost on the side. Not all members of his hit machine Boney M. were able to sing the right notes. Vocalists Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett fared well enough, but on the album recordings, Farian preferred to sing Bobby Farrell's parts himself.

On stage, all four band members were permitted to sing in front of the microphone, but they were supported by the strong vocals of a back-up choir.

Farian's finagling hardly interfered with the band's success; in the disco era such maneuvers were par for the course.

Stefan Mross (c) Getty
Stefan Mross - proving his chopsImage: Getty Images

Folk battles

In the German Schlager scene, a veritable war broke out when Belgian studio musician Alexandre Walempre, seeking additional fees, claimed he was the soloist on various pieces by Bavarian star trumpeter Stefan Mross. As part of the ensuing legal proceedings, Mross had to demonstrate that he could actually play the trumpet.

Nine years later, they settled out of court. To prove that he was very much capable of playing difficult pieces, Stefan Mross appeared before an audience of millions on the popular German TV Show "Musikantenstadl" and gave a flawless rendition of the song "Grenada." Acquittal!

The Kastelruther Spatzen on stage (c) imago / Eibner
The Kastelruther Spatzen have admitted to working a little too closely with studio musiciansImage: imago/Eibner

Rumors also bubbled up in 2010 that the massive success of South Tyrolean Schlager stars Die Kastelruther Spatzen was based on a hoax. Though the musicians did appear in person for their concerts, it was said the perfect sound on their recordings was created by studio musicians. Norbert Rier, the group's singer, ultimately admitted that was the case, although he claims not to have used a substitute in his personal case.

The Spatzen themselves could be heard only on the band's first four albums, but they weren't required to hand back their Echo Award - the German answer to the Grammys.

Stolen notes in classical and pop

Neither is the world of classical music is scandal-free. Here, however, it's often a question of plagiarism allegations between one composer and another. It's been maintained that Mozart's famed "Magic Flute" was drawn from a work by Muzio Clementi, while one of Bach's sons, Wilhelm Friedemann, is accused of having quoted from one of his father's works and presenting the result as his own.

Garry Moore playing guitar on stage (c) imago-imgaebroker
Garry Moore paid up after drawing inspiration from a German groupImage: imago/imagebroker

But it's mostly in the world of pop that one also doesn't have to look far to find allegations of intellectual theft. Garry Moore's million-selling hit "Still Got the Blues" was claimed to stem from German rock group Jud's Gallery. In 2009, Moore ultimately paid an unnamed sum to the German musicians. Another dispute between US singers and songwriters Huey Lewis and Ray Parker Jr. was settled out of court.

The 1984 songs "I Want a New Drug" (which was released first) and "Ghostbusters" sound suspiciously similar. Both ended up being big successes.

The Milli Vanilli story may have ended in tragedy, but the two protagonists' dramatic rise and fall can now be taken in as an experimental multi-media opera at a New York stage. After all, say its producers, Milli Vanilli represent an American legend - no matter where the group's roots may be.

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