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Obituary: Rob Pilatus

FROM the Monkees to the Spice Girls via Black Box and the Bay City Rollers, the history of popular music is littered with acts who didn't actually play on their records. However, getting a Grammy award without singing a note is a feat that has only been achieved once.

Milli Vanilli, the late Eighties pop duo featuring Fabrice Morvan and Rob Pilatus, who was found dead in a Frankfurt hotel room last week, won a Grammy as Best New Act of 1989. The duo sold millions of disposable, poppy, dancy singles like "Girl You Know It's True", "Baby Don't Forget My Number" and "Girl I'm Gonna Miss You" before having to return their statuettes when they admitted they'd lip-synched to somebody else's performance (Brad Howell, Johnny Davis and Charles Shaw were some of the featured vocalists) on every track released under their name. Milli Vanilli's fortunes never recovered and Pilatus fell into drug addiction despite several attempts to clean up his act.

The son of an American soldier and a German mother, he was born in New York but grew up with adoptive parents in Munich. His smouldering good looks helped him get work as a model in the mid-Eighties. He also occasionally appeared as a dancer on television shows and joined the band Dupont who released a few records on MCA. But it was only when the Boney M mastermind Frank Farian put him together with the Guadeloupe-born Fabrice Morvan (coincidentally also the son of an American serviceman) that things started to look up.

Milli Vanilli, named after a New York night-club, flopped in the 1987 Eurovision Song Contest. However, when they covered Numarx's little-known but infectious "Girl You Know It's True", teenage girls all over Germany fell for their easy-going charm, finely threaded dreadlocks and swaying hips.

With an act that effectively predated the raunchiness of Nineties boys bands and wasn't a million miles removed from the Chippendales, Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan soon triumphed in the rest of Europe. By 1989, the US dance market was ready for their brand of sensuous, lightweight dance- pop and the duo scored three consecutive number ones ("Baby Don't Forget My Number", "Girl I'm Gonna Miss You" and "Don't Blame It On The Rain"), selling over six million copies of their debut album in that territory alone.

Unfortunately, that huge leap in fame and fortune turned out to be a step too far when Milli Vanilli couldn't keep up the pretence and audiences at their concerts realised they were miming to backing tracks. Even though it's a common practice for Europop acts and fine when used on Top of the Pops or for "track dates" in clubs, lip-synching is something the American music industry frowns upon.

Concert-goers and record-buyers duly sued Milli Vanilli and Arista, their US record label, and earned refunds on Arista products. This established a legal precedent which is often mentioned when doubts and rumours surface around live shows by the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson.

At the time, both Morvan and Pilatus claimed in interviews that they had been conned into fronting the act. "The last two years have been a total nightmare. We are true singers but that maniac Frank Farian would never allow us to express ourselves," said Pilatus in 1991.

But the world media savaged Milli Vanilli and Arista Records dropped them like a stone. Even though they'd parted company with Farian who now laid claims to their trademark name, they were still sued by David Clayton- Thomas of Blood, Sweat and Tears (whose "Spinning Wheel" bore more than a passing ressemblance to Milli Vanilli's "All or Nothing").

The following year, they tried a comeback as Rob & Fab with a self-financed single called "We Don't Give Up a Fight" (on which they actually sang) but their fall from grace was swift and cruel. Pilatus tried to commit suicide and later misbehaved on a regular basis. In 1990, he was charged with sexual assault on a 25-year-old woman. In 1996, he was sentenced to three months in jail and six months at a drug treatment facility in California after he beat up a man with a metal lamp-base, assaulted another person and broke into a car.

"I'm totally shocked," said Frank Farian when he was told of his former charge's demise. "Rob looked really good again. He was full of optimism for the future. We intended to tape material for another album."

Pierre Perrone

Robert Pilatus, model and pop singer: born New York 8 June 1965; died Frankfurt 2 April 1998.