Milli Vanilli almost went down as one of the most successful groups of the modern pop music era. Instead, the duo became probably the biggest punchlines in pop music, thanks to the absolutely bizarre road they followed to success (and the bizarre road after it, as well). The group is mostly known for one album, Girl You Know It's True and a handful of well-constructed Europop style singles.
The group formed in 1988 in Munich, Germany, the pairing of two long-haired, well-built African American club dancers in the popular Munich club scene. The two men were Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan (at least to the world at large, but we'll get to that), and together they released a record in 1989 entitled Girl You Know It's True, an album that is pure, straightforward Europop.
The group's look, coupled with the inherent catchiness and simplicity of the music, caused the album to reach the top ten in the United States and spawned five hit singles. The singles were Girl You Know It's True (peaking at #4 in the US in April 1989 and #3 in the UK in November 1988), Baby Don't Forget My Number (peaking at #1 in the US in July 1989 and #16 in the UK in January 1989), Girl I'm Gonna Miss You (peaking at #1 in the US in September 1989 and #2 in the UK in October 1989), Blame It On The Rain (peaking at #1 in the US in November 1989 and #52 in the UK in December 1989), and All Or Nothing (peaking at #4 in the US in February 1990 and #74 in the UK in March 1990). The group also had major success on the German pop charts, with success essentially matching the success the group had in the United States.
The band's story took an interesting twist in February 1990, when the band was awarded the 1989 Grammy for Best New Artist. This success led to a huge inflation of the group's ego, leading Rob to appear in the March 1, 1990 issue of Time magazine stating ""Musically, we are more talented than any Bob Dylan. We are more talented than Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger ... I'm the new Elvis." Given the group's bubblegum look and sound and the audacity of such a statement, the backlash against the group began. Serious music fans, for the most part, had already demonstrated their dislike for the group, voting them the worst new act of 1989 and worst album of 1989 in the Rolling Stone reader's poll. The first strong sign that a backlash against the group had begun came from the June 10, 1990, of the Fox sketch comedy show In Living Color, which featured a skewering parody of the band. But this was just the start of bad things for the group.
In the late summer and fall of 1990, the group's popularity slowly started to slip as the group failed to release any new material, aside from an early 1990 album of remixes and b-sides. Their image didn't help, either, mostly coming across as partiers who didn't really want to record anything new; they were constantly out at dance clubs all night long, living the party. Things came to a head on November 14, 1990, where Frank Farian, the producer of the first Milli Vanilli album, called a press conference to announce that Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Norvan had in fact not sung a note on their hugely popular album. In fact, the singing had been done by Charles Shaw, John Davis, and Brad Howe.
After two weeks of intense media exposure, the group appeared at a press conference on November 28, 1990, to return their best new artist Grammy award (they couldn't keep it because, well, it wasn't them singing). At the conference, the duo actually performed a song a capella for the crowd, and surprisingly, it wasn't altogether horrible. In fact, a voice coach commented after the conference that the duo probably had more vocal talent than the individuals on the record if they were properly trained.
The damage had been done, however, and Milli Vanilli quickly became a running joke. Rob and Fabian played along for a while, appearing in a 1991 ad for Care-Free chewing gum, in which they lip-synched the song. In the meanwhile, a class action suit was filed and purchasers of the Girl You Know It's True album were able to mail in for a rebate if they could provide proof of purchase.
Eventually, the weight of what had happened landed on the group's shoulders and Rob Pilatus attempted suicide in late 1991 and then actually passed away from a drug overdose in early April 1998.
Also worth noting are the two "other" Milli Vanilli albums that one can find out there. One is a 1991 release from a group calling themselves The Real Milli Vanilli - yes, Charles Shaw, John Davis, and Brad Howe. This album is called The Moment of Truth and featured the single Keep On Running, which actually peaked at #4 in Germany in late 1991. The other Milli Vanilli album is by Rob and Fab (that's how they credit themselves) and is eponymously titled; it was released in extremely small numbers in early 1993. It featured one single that utterly flopped, called We Can Get It On. And that closes the book on this group.
Milli Vanilli is best remembered for a handful of extremely popular bubblegum pop songs and the immense hoax that was perpetrated on the music buying public.