Davis recently told a podcast how a German music producer selected him to sing on a project but didn’t tell him others would be lip-synching his music.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — John Davis, one of the real singers behind the lip-synching pop duo Milli Vanilli, died of the coronavirus this week, according to his family. He was 66.
Davis died on Monday in Nuremberg, Germany, where he had lived and performed for a long time, his daughter Jasmin Davis said in a Facebook post.
“We are so incredibly sad and heartbroken,” Davis told The Associated Press in a Facebook message.
Davis was credited with backup vocals but was really a lead singer on albums by Milli Vanilli, whose expeditious ascension into the music world was followed by an equally rapid fall.
Following the debut single “Girl You Know It’s True” and No. 1 hits including “Blame It On the Rain” and “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” Fabrice Morvan and Rob Pilatus won the 1989 Best New Artist Grammy Award.
When it was revealed that neither actually sang on Milli Vanilli records, the group was stripped of the Grammy months later and disbanded, reforming as Rob and Fab in 1991, but achieving little commercial success. The duo faced legal challenges, including a successful lawsuit from the 1960s-era band Blood, Sweat and Tears, which accused Morvan and Pilatus of stealing the melody of “Spinning Wheel” for “Girl You Know It’s True.”
Born in Anderson, South Carolina, Davis had lived much of his life in Germany after first being stationed there with the U.S. Army in the 1970s, he told The Hustle podcast on an episode published in April.
He was living in the country working as musician in the 1980s when German music producer Frank Farian selected him to sing on a project — for several times what he made for a regular singing gig — but didn’t tell him others would lip-synch his music, Davis said. Farian had him come to the studio late at night, keeping him separate from other artists, he said.
Only later did he discover that his voice was being attributed to Morvan, Davis told the podcast.
“One evening I was sitting at home watching my TV, and I saw Fab singing ‘Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,'” he said.
Radio stations in Nuremberg began to recognize Davis’ voice on the Milli Vanilli tracks, the singer said. But Davis told the podcast he “made a lot of money” from the recordings and had a comfortable life, despite not achieving the stardom — albeit fleeting — of the faces of the group.
The record on which Davis sang sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. alone. All five singles from the album were Top 5 hits.
Farian later repackaged songs that had been planned for a second Milli Vanilli album, but with Davis and another of the actual singers listed as lead vocals. The album reached Germany’s top 20 in 1991.
Pilatus, a former model who later turned to drugs, died alone at age 33 in a German hotel room in 1998.
Morvan and Davis remained on good terms, performing together on a German television show in 2015. A documentary film about Milli Vanilli’s rise and fall is reportedly in the works.
“We’re going to miss your energy, the big smile you graced me and so many with through the years, we’ll keep you forever in our hearts,” Morvan tweeted Friday, of Davis. “Your golden voice will continue to be heard, you best believe that those classic records will live just like you eternally.”
Davis’ family set up a GoFundMe to help pay for a service, which they called “one last performance, with people he loved and got loved from.”
“He made a lot of people happy with his laughter and smile, his happy spirit, love and especially through his music,” Jasmin Davis wrote on Facebook. “He gave so much to the world!”
Associated Press Music Writer Mesfin Fekadu in New York contributed to this report.