30 Years Ago, Milli Vanilli Returned Their Best New Artist Grammy; Should They Get the Award Back Now?

Fab Morvan and other music biz players look back at the 1990 lip-synching scandal with a modern-day lens.

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Fab Morvan and other music biz players look back at the 1990 lip-synching scandal with a modern-day lens.

The 32nd Grammy Awards took place February 21, 1990 at Los Angeles’ fabled Shrine Auditorium, where Milli Vanilli’s Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan sat in the front row, nervously waiting for Kris Kristofferson and Young MC to announce the winner of that year’s Best New Artist award from among a group that included folk duo Indigo Girls, alternative fave Neneh Cherry, British house music pioneers Soul II Soul and MC’s Delicious Vinyl labelmate Tone Loc.

“And the best new artist Grammy goes to… Milli Vanilli!”

“Rob and I hugged each other and celebrated,” recalls Morvan, then 23 years old. “It may have looked like joy and happiness. But inside it was pure confusion. We knew this would come back to bite us in the butt.”

The “this” Morvan references is the fact that the two had lip-synched to songs on their multi-platinum 1989 album, a controversy that would play itself out publicly in the months to come and result in the rare Grammy Award revocation.

Thirty years later, the fascination with Milli Vanilli continues, with a feature biopic — directed by Brett Ratner with a screenplay by “Rush Hour” collaborator Jeff Nathanson — and negotiations underway for a documentary and a TV series. There are also those calling for the Recording Academy to reverse its decision and return the trophy to the group’s surviving member.

To recap: nine months after their Grammy win, on November 20, 1990, Pilatus and Morvan were holding a hastily called press conference at Ocean Way studios in Hollywood to officially turn over their Grammy awards, a day after then-Recording Academy head Michael Greene had already officially revoked it on behalf of the organization.

Just a week before, the duo’s Germany producer and mastermind Frank Farian revealed to Reuters what had been a poorly kept secret within the tight-knit recording industry: The German-born Pilatus and Paris native Morvan hadn’t sung a note on the worldwide 14-million-selling, chart-topping “Girl You Know It’s True” album, which generated five Top 5 singles and three No. 1 pop hits in “Blame It on the Rain,” “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” and “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You.” Farian pulled the plug and blew up his own creation, in turn punishing Pilatus and Morvan for the sheer gall of wanting to sing on their own next album.

“I hope this revocation will make the industry think long and hard before anyone ever tries to pull something like this again,” said Greene, who happily posed for pictures with the winning duo at the Grammy ceremony.

Actually, Pilatus and Morvan had already decided to return the Grammy on their own, revealing as much the previous weekend in an interview with the L.A. Times’ Chuck Philips, suggesting the statue be given to John Davis, Brad Howell and Charles Shaw, the album’s actual singers.

The 1990 letter acknowledging the return of Milli Vanilli’s Grammy. In recent years, an online petition has been launched by fans to reverse the decision. Courtesy Image

Mllli Vanilli had performed at the Grammys that night and, according to longtime Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich, it was one of the rare times in his own 40-year stint that he allowed an artist to lip-synch on the show, which made a point of honoring craft and artistry, but was certainly not immune to commercial success.

“I’d agreed to do it for the first time with Janet Jackson a few years earlier, as their management [the late Sandy Gallin and Jim Morey] threatened to pull them off the show,” says Ehrlich. “They were so hot at the time, we went along.  But they were good at it — even I thought they were singing.”

Former Arista exec Roy Lott insists to this day that no one at the label — including Clive Davis, who obtained the rights to release the album in the U.S. from BMG after it broke out in Europe — had any clue the album credits, listing Pilatus and Morvan as vocalists, were false. Each time they confronted Farian about it, Lott insists the producer denied the charges, though he did admit there were backup vocalists on the album. “By the time we learned the true, it wasn’t actually a shock,” Lott confesses.

Ken Levy, former head of creative services for Arista, reveals the label suspected Pilatus and Morvan hadn’t actually sung on the album by the time of their Grammy nomination, a characterization denied by Lott, who insisted neither he nor Clive were aware for sure until Farian’s revelation later that year. A recent Billboard article claimed Davis was adamantly opposed to submitting the duo for a best new artist nomination for that very reason, but the pair were submitted by Gallin-Morey management. “We all knew by the time of the awards they hadn’t sung on the album, so it was a little awkward and uncomfortable for us when they did win,” reveals Levy.

Pilatus and Morvan arrived in the U.S. for the first time just as their debut album was released in March 1989.  By the summer, Milli Vanilli were booked on the inaugural Club MTV Tour with Paula Abdul, Was (Not Was), Information Society and Tone Loc. As the ubiquitous “Girl You Know It’s True” soared to the top of the charts, Pilatus and Morvan began to move up the bill to headliner status right after Abdul. On July 21, 1989, at Lake Compounce amusement park in Bristol, CT, the hard drive containing the vocal parts for Milli Vanilli crashed at the start of the show — it didn’t skip endlessly, as Pilatus told VH1’s “Behind the Music” — sending the pair fleeing from the stage, where they had to be coaxed back to finish the set by the evening’s host, MTV VJ Julie “Downtown” Brown.

“Everyone behind the scenes knew Milli Vanilli were not 100% live, but neither were many of the other acts, including Paula Abdul,” recalls Chris Cuben-Tatum, the show producer and front-of-house sound engineer for the tour. “You really believe Clive Davis, with his renowned golden ears, didn’t know what was going on? Please…”

“We were seduced and very young,” says Morvan now. “We had no life experience. We were riding the wave. It was a crazy adventure. We were getting loaded, trying to escape, constantly in fear of being discovered.”

Three decades later, it’s surprising that such a media firestorm took place over lip-synching, which has been commonplace, to varying degrees, for many years.

The role Pilatus and Morvan had in the success of Milli Vanilli from a marketing and promotional standpoint has been both overblown and downplayed over time. Few people realize how fervently they sold those records in an era when MTV ruled the record charts, embarking shortly after the Grammys on a massive four-month-long, 107-city tour that took them around the U.S.  At the time of the award give-back in November, they were deep into planning a world jaunt.

“You have to give them credit for all those album sales,” agrees Arista’s Lott. “Ultimately, it was Rob and Fab’s image that sold the music. They did their job. They were the face of Milli Vanilli.”

Those indelible images still exist not just on the Internet, where millions of young fans have discovered them, but in popular culture, where “Milli Vanilli” has turned into a generic term for deception, defined not so much by Pilatus and Morvan pretending to sing, but by the industry machinery foisted on the public.

“We’ve been carrying this cross for a long time,” says Morvan from his Amsterdam home. “We’ve been blamed over and over. We were victims of our own dreams of stardom, chewed up and spit out by the record industry machine.”

Pilatus wasn’t as lucky, dying in an accidental drug overdose in a Frankfurt, Germany hotel in April 1998, having just warily agreed to work with Farian again.

“He was my brother,” says Morvan. “He was addicted to the public’s life, their adoration. He couldn’t live without it.”

An online petition has circulated, demanding the Recording Academy reverse its decision and re-award Milli Vanilli with its Grammy.

“It’s a modern-day music business fable, a fascinating story with many different layers,” says Mitchell Cohen, a music journalist who worked in A&R at Arista during that era. “But people took it way too seriously. There’s a tradition for that sort of thing: [1960s vocal group] the Crystals were whoever [producer] Phil Spector said they were.”

Morvan, now 54, is surprisingly sanguine and upbeat; being Milli Vanilli has helped define his character and forged his destiny. He’s a survivor, his story a cautionary tale.

“I’ve always been underestimated,” he says. “My dream was to be a singer-songwriter. I’m able to look in the mirror today and be happy with what I see.”