Monday, March 10, 2014

Prelude to Milli Vanilli: Other artists who didn't play on their own records

Giving credit to people who don't deserve it is a time-honored tradition in music. 

Even artists who deserve accolades, like the Beatles, get undeserved credit for things like inventing varispeed recording or being the first group to change time signatures within a pop song. 

In music, whenever people declare that an artist is "the first" at anything, they should immediately qualify it with the phrase "that I know of." 

If you remember the Milli Vanilli scandal, it was pretty ridiculous. When it was revealed that they didn't actually sing on their records, they were forced to give back their Grammy Awards, and member Rob Pilatus died several years later of a drug overdose.

Their hits—which were massively successful and perfectly fine radio fodder—were really the brainchild of producer Frank Farian. The two Milli Vanilli figureheads, Pilatus and Fab Morvan, were essentially live billboards for the records. Kids probably wouldn't have gotten as excited about a Frank Farian record.

Frank Farian

People were outraged and acted like it was the first time that music listeners had ever been taken in by records that didn't scrupulously reveal who was the actual creative force behind them. 

But in dance music, in particular, producers had been creating fake group and artist names to slap onto their studio creations forever. So when Milli Vanilli was revealed to be a manufactured group like the Archies, I was like, so what? 

(It's true: The Archies' records weren't actually created by the comic book and television cartoon characters.)

Today, Music Weird looks at a handful of early Milli Vanillis: artists who received credit for records that they had little or no involvement in.  

Lawrence Welk

Lawrence Welk was a talented guy with a vision. His vision was for extremely vanilla middle-of-the-road entertainment, though, so he doesn't get tons of respect. 

I've read both of his autobiographies, and I really like some of his recordings—especially his Dot recordings from the 1960s. 

In the 1960s, Welk's old formula—accordion-and-harpsichord waltzes and polkas—wasn't exactly tearing up the charts, so he often turned his recording franchise over to his band's arranger and conductor, George Cates. Welk went off and attended to his entertainment empire while the young'uns in the group did their thing in the studio. The resulting so-called Lawrence Welk records, which include rock instrumentals like "Zero-Zero" and "Breakwater," are more similar to Billy Vaughn's music than to Welk's old "champagne music." 

Sheb Wooley

Actor and country star Sheb Wooley is best remembered for his novelty hit "Purple People Eater," but he also appeared in the classic Western film High Noon, recorded country and novelty music for decades, and had many hits, including the country chart-topper "That's My Pa" in 1961 and some song parodies as his comedy alter-ego, Ben Colder. 

When "Purple People Eater" became a #1 hit in 1958, Wooley's label, MGM Records, wanted to exploit it further, so MGM put together an instrumental EP titled The Purple People Eater Plays Earth Music. Wooley wasn't expected to perform on it at all, even though the label was going to release it under his name. 

Wooley didn't love that idea, though, so he brushed up on his guitar playing so he could at least sit in on the sessions. He's somewhere in the background of those recordings, inconspicuously strumming along. At least MGM kept things vague by saying that the record only featured Wooley. Yeah, it featured him, but barely. 

Jackie Gleason

Jackie Gleason, the star of television's The Honeymooners and the blockbuster film Smokey & the Bandit (the #2 film of 1977, after Star Wars), also lent his name to a series of mood music albums, many of which featured acclaimed trumpeter Bobby Hackett. 

Some of these albums are really great, if you like orchestral mood music, and they sold like crazy. His album Music for Lovers Only holds the record for spending the longest number of weeks on the Billboard Top 10 pop album chart. 

Gleason's level of involvement in the albums is disputed, though. The Wikipedia article on Gleason says that, according to Hackett, Gleason's only contribution was to pay the musicians. 

You might say, "But wait, Music Weird. This album cover says only that Gleason presents the music." True, but a lot of his albums just said "Jackie Gleason." 

Ace O'Donnell, and countless other honky-tonk pianists

Old-timey honky-tonk piano instrumentals became a craze in the 1950s. Budget labels cranked out albums by cigarette-smoking, derby-wearing, black-armband-sporting saloon pianists with colorful names like Knuckle Fingers Joe, Fingers Mahoney, Hap O'Hallihan, Crazy Fritz, Puddin' Head Smith, and Knuckles O'Toole. 

Most of those artists didn't really exist. The labels would hire an anonymous pianist to bang out parlor songs on an out-of-tune piano, and then the marketing department would take it from there.  

The budget label Tops Records had on its roster the alleged Ace O'Donnell, who was portrayed by different models on "his" album covers.

The honky-tonk genre had some real stars, too, like Crazy Otto, Frankie Carle, and Big Tiny Little, so the made-up pianists' names were often similar to those names. (An effort to confuse record buyers, I'm sure.) 

But a lot of the budget labels didn't only make up the artists' names—they also repackaged the same album over and over again under different names. 

If, for some reason, you decide that you want to start collecting budget-label honky-tonk piano albums from the 1950s, expect to end up with many copies of the same album attributed to different artists. 

The Crystals

Some of the Crystals' Phil Spector-produced hits, such as "He's a Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy I Love," were actually performed by Darlene Love and the Blossoms. Frank Farian probably took a page from the Phil Spector playbook. Darlene Love said that, to Spector, the singers were no more important than the third violin or the second engineer. 

Tobin Matthews

Music Weird devoted a whole post to Tobin Matthews of "Ruby Duby Du" fame. There was no actual Tobin Matthews when that record became a hit in 1960. Willy Henson became Tobin Matthews thereafter, but he was not involved in any way with "Ruby Duby Du." 

Franklyn Baur

Baur's name doesn't ring any bells with you? His 1927 single "Hallelujah" is credited to Cass Hagen and His Hotel Manager Orchestra, with Franklyn Baur on vocals. But jazz cornetist Red Nichols, who played on the session, said that the vocals were actually performed by actor Charles Kaley.  

This isn't an exhaustive list, of course. These are just the examples that I could think of on a Saturday morning. Add more in the comments!


  1. There's also The Rubettes. Their #1 hit (Sugar Baby Love) was sung by Paul Da Vinci.