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Frank Farian on Christmas and Mary’s Boychild

He’s a singer, a song writer, a producer and a shrewd business man. He created one of the most successful bands of the seventies, and pulled off two of the highest-selling singles of all time in the UK. His pop-group creation of the 80s won a Grammy Award and subsequent infamy.

He is the man behind the group we can’t help thinking about at Christmas time: Boney M.

The Mail & Guardian caught up with the mastermind of Feliz Navidad and Mary’s Boychild – Frank Farian – just before Christmas.

M&G: What is your favourite Boney M Christmas song?

Farian: My  favourite Boney M Christmas song is Mary’s Boychild, written in 1956 by Jester Joseph Hairston, an American composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor and actor. Harry Belafonte released his version of the song in 1956. It reached position 12 on the US charts but went on to becoming number one on the British charts in November 1957.

With this song, Belafonte became the first black male singer to reach number one in the UK.

He sold over one million records and stayed at number one for eight consecutive weeks. This simply unbelievable success was topped in 1978 by Boney M. Immediately following the release, the Boney M version of the song sold over 220 000 singles daily, which earned them an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. Three weeks after the release, they reached the one million mark and stayed at number one for four consecutive weeks. That’s why Mary’s Boychild is my Boney M Christmas favourite.

M&G: Why do you think Mary’s Boychild enjoyed such great success?

Farian: Before the release of Mary’s Boychild the group already enjoyed tremendous international success and popularity, so it wasn’t too difficult to predict the success of a Christmas single.

But nobody would have ever dreamed it would be THAT big!

Mary’s Boychild  was the right thing. I was lucky to have a good nose for the hit by putting a  cover of a 1956-Belafonte-song in medley with a new Farian-Jay-song Oh my Lord. My friend Fred Jay also wrote the lyrics for When a child is born – another very famous Christmas song. There was an artist, adored by fans aged five to 85, all over the world, with a selection of very good songs, gift-wrapped in a decent but commercial production: that was it, nothing mysterious. But there was also the relentless support of the people in our record companies all around the world, and the many DJs of thousands and thousands of radio stations.

Finally, our fans and supporters are the only ones to decide what’s hot and what’s not!

M&G: Which artists have inspired your work?

Farian: I started my musical career in the early 60s, exactly on December 26 1962, when I had my first public appearance with my band Frankie and Die Schatten (Frankie and the Shadows).

My God, that’s 50 years ago!

At that time I met with Hans-Jörg Mayer (George Reyam)  and we both fell so in love with  so-called “black people’s music” like blues, rhythm & blues and soul. We played artists like Solomon Burke, Otis Redding and Percy Sledge.  

This early devotion to what I still call “black music” allowed me to get the right feeling for producing a kind of modern soul-pop music that would lead me a couple of years later to a Grammy Award Milli Vanilli. (Farian created the German-based pop and dance group in 1988. The group became wildly popular and debut album went multiplatinum and had several number one hits. At the height of its success Farian admitted that the group’s two singers had not performed a single note on their album. Instead, they were using a digital synthesizer. Milli Vanilli’s Grammy was subsequently revoked).     

M&G: I have heard that, as the writer and producer of the Boney M work, you receive the lion’s share of the royalties for the music. How are the royalties shared between you and the Boney M singers?

Farian: A musical hit is never the work of a single man, but the result of the work of a whole team.

First there are the creators of a song, the composer and the lyricist who write the music and the words of a song. There are the musicians, the arranger, studio-technicians, sound-engineers and, and…. And then the artist for whom this team tries to custom-tailor a playback. Last but not least, there is the “maestro” – similar to the conductor of a big orchestra: that’s the producer. (M&G note: Farian is the producer of Boney M). And without a well-functioning publishing and distribution network, the masterpiece could never meet you, the supporter and fan.

If you were to compare a CD to a nice little cake, you now can imagine in how many little pieces you would have to slice that cake in order to feed everybody. (And) it is not unusual that it takes too long before the money starts rolling in.

As to the “the lion’s share”: there is an age-old discussion about who creates an artist. Is it the artist himself with his personality, is it the producer, the composers, the manager, the record company …?

As to my work as a producer: when I write a song, when I publish the song in my own publishing company, when I work as a studio singer on my productions and when I’m the producer, the one who pulls the strings but also has to shoulder the financial risk, I am snatching more crumbs from the royalty cake … you call it “the lion’s share”.

M&G: What is one of your favourite memories of Boney M performing live?

Farian: When you work hard on a production, sometimes 20 hours a day, sometimes almost a year to finish an album, you reach your physical and mental capacities. You feel exhausted. When you then get invited by the leader of a super-power to visit his country with your artists and perform your songs and productions there because these people  love you and your music, it revitalises you.

That’s what happened in 1978, when Boney M made a tour to the former Soviet Union to give 20 shows in Moscow. We were the first western pop group to perform in this communist country. This trip stays in my head and heart forever!

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Thalia Holmes
Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.

She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.

After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. 

The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. 

She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.     

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