Bobby Farrell: Dancer and frontman of the Euro-disco group Boney M

Manufactured pop groups have been a curse, a guilty pleasure and an occasional delight ever since The Monkees started aping The Beatles in the mid-Sixties.

Assembled by the German producer, songwriter and singer Frank Farian, a veritable one-man pop industry whose machinations unravelled when his fabricated duo Milli Vanilli won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1990, Boney M fell squarely into the curse category. Yet this ersatz, exotic-looking, Euro-disco group sold over 100 million records and topped the British charts with "Rivers of Babylon"/"Brown Girl in the Ring", 1978's biggest-selling single, and "Mary's Boy Child" – the Christmas No 1 in 1978.

Bobby Farrell was the wild-haired, often bare-chested, in-your-face, gyrating, flamboyant frontman and showman of the group but, when they appeared on television to promote Top Ten hits such as "Daddy Cool", "Ma Baker" and "Rasputin", he actually lip-synched to Farian's heavily treated deep vocals or the speaking voice of Bill Swisher, an American friend of the producer. Bizarrely, when the quartet played live concerts, Farrell seemed perfectly capable of delivering the required parts, alongside the female lead vocalist, Liz Mitchell, and occasional lead and background singer Marcia Barrett – who both really did sing on the records – and Maizie Williams, who also only sang live.

"It was understandable because Frank Farian is a white German and the music of Boney M was West Indian, American, African rhythms," said Mitchell in 2002.

Farrell participated in this charade from 1975 until the end of 1981, when he was fired by Farian and replaced by Reggie Tsiboe. The sum total of his documented contributions to the six Boney M albums whose covers he adorned were a rap on the Caribbean-flavoured "That's Boonoonoonoos (Train to Skaville)" medley and a spoken introduction to the ghastly proto-Michael Jackson message song "We Kill the World (Don't Kill the World)", the group's last UK Top 40 entry in 1981.

He was born Roberto Alfonso Farrell in 1949, on the island of Aruba, one of the Lesser Antilles, off the coast of Venezuela, and part of the Netherlands. "When I was a kid, they always called me the joker of the town," he later reflected. "I left Aruba as a 15-year-old boy. I wanted to be a seaman. I scrubbed floors, I cleaned toilets, I was a waiter. I've been up and down. People don't realise that, before you can be a hero, you have to start by the zero," he stated when asked to reflect on his life.

He lived in Norway and then Germany, where he worked as a club DJ in the early Seventies. It was there he caught the eye of the Katja Wolfe model agency, who were helping Farian put together a line-up of Boney M to front and promote the producer's record of "Baby, Do You Wanna Bump" in discothèques and on television. Farian, a fan of the Australian TV detective series Boney, had done the few vocal parts – from the male bass to the girl's falsetto – on "Bump", basically a disco instrumental remake of the Prince Buster ska hit "Al Capone", which became a hit in the Netherlands in 1975. The producer's fascination for Caribbean rhythms, and his propensity for unexpected cover versions would remain trademarks throughout Boney M's career.

Farrell, who had sung his beloved "No Woman, No Cry" at his audition, had to stand by as Mitchell recorded the Bob Marley composition, one of the few saving graces on Take the Heat Off Me, the group's 1976 debut. The album also included "Daddy Cool", their first British hit, and the follow-up, a string-laden version of Bobby Hebb's "Sunny". In 1977, Farrell made his recording debut with Gilla, another Farian act, on "Gentlemen Callers Not Allowed", and wore a suit and bowler hat when promoting the single with her on Dutch television. This proved a refreshing change of gear for the performer, who wore a loin cloth and towered over the three girls in chains on Love for Sale, Boney M's second album, a cover considered so raunchy it was changed for US release. Mostly, Farrell had his striking stage and television outfits made by the stylist and designer Tycho Boeker of the Amsterdam company Prince Charming.

1978 was Boney M's high-watermark year, as they dominated European charts with the album Nightflight to Venus, and followed the politically-charged "Belfast" with "Rasputin", a track they were not allowed to sing when they became the first Western music group invited by a Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, to perform in Moscow's Red Square.

"Hooray! Hooray! It's a Holi-Holiday" was their last UK Top 3 single in 1979, though both the Oceans of Fantasy album and 1980's The Magic of Boney M compilation reached No 1. Their stomping adaptation of "Painter Man", written by Sixties mod band The Creation, had been an unlikely success, but bizarre covers of "My Friend Jack", by freakbeat group Smoke, and "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", by acid-rock pioneers Iron Butterfly, puzzled their mainstream audience. Farian played safe with the Christmas Album, originally intended as a Mitchell solo release.

Following his exit from Boney M, Farrell recorded the single "Polizei" in 1982. Two years later, he was back in a five-piece line-up of the group alongside Barrett, Mitchell, Williams and Tsiboe to promote "Happy Song", Farian's attempt to jump on the breakdancing bandwagon. In 1985, the producer recorded him solo on "King of Dancin", and allowed him to sing through a vocoder on "Young, Free and Single", again credited and promoted by the Boney M quintet. By now, they had truly outstayed their welcome and could barely make a dent on the charts even in their original stronghold, Germany, and broke up in 1986. Farrell tried his solo luck again with "Hoppa Hoppa" in 1987, but quickly realised there was more mileage in the Boney M franchise.

However, Farian, who owned the rights to the Boney M name, stopped the release of "Everybody Wants to Dance Like Josephine Baker", a single they recorded without him in France in 1989. With their former producer taking the lion's share of the Boney M royalties, the four recognisable members of the original quartet all had to keep performing to make a living and each went on to form their own versions of the group. The inevitable court cases followed and still continue to this day, though Farrell was allowed the rights to Boney M in the Netherlands, where he now lived. At first, he struggled to find enough work, lived on welfare in Rotterdam and spent a few weeks in prison after attempting to set fire to his wife who promptly divorced him.

The Noughties proved kinder to Farrell, who re-recorded several of the group's biggest hits in Italy. Billed as Bobby Farrell of Boney M, the frontman now wore a jet-black wig but was still able to reproduce the extravagant dance moves of his late Seventies heyday when guesting on nostalgia TV shows like Les Années Bonheur on France 2. Whenever the opportunity arose, he also gladly sent himself up. In 2005, he appeared in a Dutch TV commercial, dancing to "Daddy Cool" in a retirement home, and starred, complete with trusty boom box, red sparkly outfit and wig, in the video for "Turn on the Music" by the house DJ, remixer and producer Roger Sanchez. "I am a true performer at heart. Give me a good tune and I am ready! This is what I do and will do till the end of my days," Farrell is quoted as saying at the end of the clip.

He died after performing in Saint Petersburg. He had been due to appear on Italian TV in Rimini for New Year's Eve.

Roberto Alfonso Farrell, dancer, singer: born Aruba, 6 October 1949; married Yasmina Ayad-Saban (marriage dissolved, one daughter, one son); died St Petersburg, Russia 30 December 2010.

Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game