Grammy-winning Milli Vanilli didn't sing a note on any of its million-selling records? But that would mean that the commercial pop music industry lacks a full complement of integrity. That it doesn't do what it does for music, but for money. That it's not a community of self-denying artists, but an industrial agglomeration that cynically assembles "acts" and emits records as if it were all so much "product." The cultural implications are shocking.
Can't take it? Well, never mind. Think of the Milli Vanilli scandal as pop tradition, one more chapter in the rich history of Top-40 fraud. Milli Vanilli is just another in a long line of dummy groups and ghost-groups. There have been scores of these, and some of their records have long been considered classics of rock's golden era. Frank Farian, the producer of Milli Vanilli who is now calling his profitable charade an "art form," sounds much like a German cover version of such American originals as producers Don Kirshner or Phil Specter.
The very notion of what constitutes a rock "group" has long since taken on a certain ontological elasticity. An embarrassed Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, who last week expressed concern about "misrepresentation of the entity" that received his group's Grammy).
The fact is you could program quite a substantial playlist of hit records whose labels carry misrepresentations of one sort or another, from phony composer credits to "enhanced" vocals to "mystery singers" to nonexistent "groups."
Here's a countdown of a few of them, in ascending order of egregiousness. 10. The All American Boy Bill Parsons, 1958
"All American Boy" is a parody of the then-young rock world, based on Elvis's career, though the joke ultimately was on the song's singer. Despite what it says on the label, Bill Parsons didn't sing "All American Boy"; Bobby Bare did.
Bare and Parsons were friends who rented a recording studio to work on some Parsons songs. At the last minute, Bare recorded "All American Boy," with some quick help from Parsons. Bare, who'd been drafted, went on to basic training, while the tapes went to Fraternity Records.
Fraternity thought that all the tapes were by Parsons and released "All American Boy" under his name.
That made Parsons's name commercial, so although Fraternity became aware of the error, they released another Bare tune under Parsons's name. Bare later recorded some big hits ("Detroit City," "500 Miles From Home") under his own name, and Parsons some flops under his.
9. Sugar, Sugar/The Archies/1969 Tracy/The Cuff Links/1969
Did the Archies exist? Saturday-morning TV cartoon characters (based on the old Archie comic books), "they" ended up with the biggest record of 1969. Long-time pop industrialist Don Kirshner, who fabricated the Monkees, also assembled the Archies. The voices belong to Ron Dante as Archie, Jughead and Moose, and Toni Wine as Betty and Veronica.
While "Sugar, Sugar" was at No. 1, "Tracy" by the Cuff Links also entered the Top 10; the Cuff Links were also Ron Dante, thus giving him two major hits on the same chart and leaving him totally unknown. Nothing new for Dante: In 1965, he had been The Detergents on the novelty hit, "Leader of the Laudromat." (When Dante quit being the Cuff Links, Rupert Holmes, later of "The Pina Colada Song" fame, became "them.")
Dante went on to record commercial jingles, produce some Barry Manilow hits, and according to one story, to be publisher of Paris Review, which he supposedly won from George Plimpton in a pool game.
8. Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)/Edison Lighthouse/1970 My Baby Loves Lovin'/White Plains/1970 Gimme Dat Ding/The Pipkins/1970 Beach Baby/First Class/1974
All of these bubblegum hits were by studio groups that were quickly assembled to record a promising-sounding song, and just as quickly disassembled. But they've all got one thing in common: All these "groups" are fronted by a British singer named Tony Burrows. According to Wayne Jancik, Burrows had sung with several British groups, but had given the business up when he was asked to record "Love Grows" with some studio musicians. The song reached No. 5 on Billboard's chart.
But, you say, 20 years ago you attended a concert and saw and heard Edison Lighthouse sing their hit? No you didn't. When "Love Grows" started getting airplay, a floundering group named Greenfield Hammer was hired to tour under the Edison Lighthouse name (35 groups auditioned for the honor); after "Love Grows" slipped off the charts, Greenfield Hammer went back to being Greenfield Hammer.
Burrows went on to "be" White Plains (hitting No. 13) and the Pipkins (No. 9) that same year, which isn't a bad run, and was inspired to try to sell records under his own name. For two years, Tony Burrows records came out that nobody played or bought. In 1974, Burrows fronted a studio group called First Class, and "Beach Baby" climbed to No. 9.
7. He's the Kind of Boy You Can't Forget. The Raindrops, 1963
There was no Raindrops. Songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who wrote some of Top-40's biggest songs, did a multi-tracked demo record of "What A Guy," intending it for the Sensations (of "Let Me In" fame), but the record executives who heard it decided to release the demo instead. The nonexistent group was named after a Dee Clarke hit. According to one story, dummy groups were hired to go on promotional tours, while according to another, Ellie Greenwich lipsynced the song herself on TV appearances. Both stories could be true. "He's the Kind of Boy" was the Raindrops' biggest hit, reaching No. 17.
6. Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye Steam, 1969
There was no Steam. "Na Na Hey Hey" was recorded in one evening as a B-side by three musicians who didn't want to waste any of what they thought were their good songs on the back of a record. The lyrics are stupid and the song overlong on purpose; the point was not to confuse deejays about what side of the record to play. Record executives loved it; it was released on its own and a discerning public made it No. 1. According to rock writer Fred Bronson, producer Paul Leka found a group in Bridgeport, Conn. willing to tour as Steam.
5. This Diamond Ring Gary Lewis and the Playboys, 1965
Liberty Records producer Snuff Garrett wouldn't let the Playboys play, and hardly let Gary Lewis (Jerry's son) sing. The group's breakthrough hit features some crooning by Lewis, but according to rock writers Bob Shannon and John Javna, the voice on the record belongs mostly to studio singer Ron Hicklin.
4. Candida Dawn, 1970
"Candida" was already a hit when Bell Record executives decided they needed a group to go with the song; false Dawns were already performing. The actual voices belonged to Tony Orlando, a washed-up singer who had recorded the song as a favor, and studio singers Joyce Wilson and Telma Hopkins. But Orlando and the women had never met; they'd recorded their parts in separate cities. It was Orlando who, long-distance, talked the reluctant pair into actually appearing as the group.
3. There Goes My Baby The Drifters, 1959
Among the greatest acts in Top-40 history, The Drifers span more than 20 years of hits and changing styles. In the '50s, fronted by Clyde McPhatter, among others, they had a string of important R&B hits. Toward the end of the decade, however, with sales and audience interest slumping, the group decided to call it a show-business day and disband.
As rock historian Irwin Stambler tells the famous story, the decision left the group's manager holding a contract for play-dates at New York's Apollo Theater. He hired a group called the Five Crowns, with Ben E. King on lead, to pretend to be the Drifters. It was a small-time scam; only some Apollo audiences would be put on.
But the manager also still had a contract with Atlantic Records, and the rights to what had at one time been a commercially significant entity. Atlantic gave them a try, with the resulting string of records among the biggest hits of the late '50s and early '60s. "There Goes My Baby," which featured a complete personnel shift from the last Drifters release, was the first Top-40 record to feature violins.
2. A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You The Monkees, 1967
The most notorious of the artificial groups, the Monkees's 1967 "A Little Bit Me" release reportedly doesn't even feature the Monkees. According to Bob Shannon and John Javna's book, "Behind the Hits," Monkees creator Don Kirshner, who was resisting the embarrassed group's demand that it actually play on some recordings, had Davy Jones sing the song alone. The mystery back-up voices, speculates Eric Lefcowitz, author of a book called "The Monkees' Tale," may include Neil Diamond (who wrote the first Monkees hit) and Carole King.
1. He's A Rebel The Crystals, 1962
A classic of multi-level deception. Phil Specter was in New York at Liberty Records when he heard Gene Pitney's composition, "He's A Rebel," which was already intended by another producer (Snuff Garrett) for, of all people, Vicki Carr. Recognizing it as a hit, Specter decided to produce a version for his own label, Philles. He got a copy from Pitney and headed for Los Angeles to record it in secret.
Specter decided to make it a Crystals record; the group already had had a couple of hits, and the name was commercial. Unfortunately, the Crystals were on the road with "Uptown," and there was no way to get them to a studio quickly enough. No problem. Specter hired a no-name studio group called the Blossoms to record the song, and released it as by the Crystals anyway.
As for the original, touring Crystals, the first they knew anything about "He's A Rebel" was when they heard "their" new record on the radio. The song made No. 1, and the Blossoms's Darlene Love was to have a long career with Specter. The original Crystals returned to the studio eventually, too; "Da Doo Ron Ron" features them.
Charles Paul Freund is an Outlook editor.