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.

Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £35000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

Teacher

£130 - £131 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Ks1 teacher required for m...

Project Manager (infrastructure, upgrades, rollouts)

£38000 - £45000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

MI Analyst and SQL Developer (SQL, SSAS, SSRS)

£28000 - £32500 Per Annum + 28 days holiday, pension, discounts and more: Clea...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?