John Davis, one of the voices behind Milli Vanilli, dies, age 66

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John Davis. The name might not sound familiar in terms of late 20th century popular music, but it should. Davis was one of the real voices behind German pop duo, Milli Vanilli. Davis’ daughter announced Monday on Facebook. Davis passed away due to COVID-19 complications, but it was the role he played in a hoax on the American public that gives him at least part of his public legacy.

John Davis and Milli Vanilli: history

Milli Vanilli was the brainchild of pop producer, Frank Farian. Farian had success with the band Boney M, the band responsible for the disco hit “Waters of Babylon.” Milli Vanilli was awarded a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best New Artist. They were given the award on the strength of their debut album, “Girl You Know It’s True.” The title track for that album featured Davis as one of the singers. This fact was concealed from the public, and when it was revealed that the handsome, dreadlocked men were not the real singers of “Girl You Know It’s True,” or anything else on the album, the fallout was swift. The Grammy was rescinded. Despite the Milli Vanilli singers’ willingness to use their own voices, the public was decidedly over them.

According to NPR, Davis, a native of South Carolina, was brought in to replace another American singer who had been singing for Milli Vanilli, and who may or may not have been the person who first leaked the idea that the German pop duo was not doing their own singing.

Milli Vanilli and John Davis: a listening public learns

Maybe 21 years into the 21st century, the American listening public is more enlightened and more aware of how diversity works in a global sense. But in 1989-1990, not everyone was aware that there were black people in Germany, and so learning that about Milli Vanilli was an eye-opener for some people.

NPR also explains that “Girl You Know It’s True” is a remake of a song by the Baltimore band Numarx. Milli Vanilli’s version stayed on the Billboard top 200 for 78 weeks.

What has not been made clear to a number of people is why Milli Vanilli had to pretend to sing. Why not use their own voices? Some people in northern Indiana remember when Milli Vanilli came to Fort Wayne, Indiana. One of the duo members did some freestyle vamping that involved manipulating the outside of his throat. Audiences who witnessed the feat doubted the then-rumors that the duo was not doing their own singing. But, alas, the truth was they had been listening to Davis, and perhaps one other person.

Davis has been photographed singing with the surviving member of Milli Vanilli, Fabrice Morvan (Rob Pilatus died in 1998). According to reports, Davis came to Germany in the 1970s, to work as a bass player and studio singer. He has at least two albums to his credit, 1980’s “Joker” and 1990’s “Still Be Loving You.”

Clearly, Davis was talented. As unfortunate as his death by COVID-19 is, maybe now more people will more fully appreciate what Davis offered to pop music.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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