The Village People
The Village People
“The music was fun, the garb was outrageous, and that’s all that mattered to the heartland partisans of these six hip hunks,” said Entertainment Weekly contributor Jess Cagle of the late- 1970s phenomenon that was the Village People, a group that was on tour as late as 1991. Largely members of the gay community of New York City’s Greenwich Village, the half-dozen-strong ensemble dominated the disco era with outfits and campy song lyrics that found their genesis in caricatures of macho heroes.
A well-orchestrated stage act helped the Village People edge out the Bee Gees as Billboard’s disco group of the year in 1978. The group earned three platinum albums that produced the monster hits “Y.M.C.A.,” “San Francisco,” “Macho Man,” “In the Navy,” and “Go West” over the course of the late 1970s. “So much happens so quickly and [the] kick-drum pounds so relentlessly, that the show becomes a loud blur of hilarity, too patently absurd to be erotic,” wrote Ken Emerson, appraising the act’s appeal in a 1978 Rolling
Members include Alex Briley (the GI), David Hodo (the construction worker), Glenn Hughes (the biker), Jeff Olson (the cowboy; replaced Randy Jones ), Felipe Rose (the Indian chief), Ray Simpson (the cop; replaced Victor Willis as lead singer, 1979; replaced at one point by Miles Jay, beginning in 1982).
Group based on album cover concept of record produced by Jacques Morali, 1977; took legitimate shape in 1978; debut album, Village People, 1978, produced international hit singles, “Macho Man,” “Y.M.C.A.,” “San Francisco,” “In the Navy,” “Go West”; group performed in the film Can’t Stop the Music, 1980; released “new romantic” new wave album Renaissance, 1981; songs featured in films; released single “Sex on the Phone,” 1985; performed in Dallas and Austin, Texas, 1989; toured the U.S. and abroad, 1991.
Awards: Six gold and four platinum records, and three platinum albums; voted disco group of the year by Billboard International Disco Forum, 1978.
Addresses: Agent —c/o Talent Consultants International Ltd., 200 West 57th St., Ste. 910, New York, NY 10019.
Stone article. “You can’t help but dance, you can’t help but laugh.”
The disco music fad was brief, but heady for the original members of the Village People. Victor Willis, David Hodo, Felipe Rose, Alex Briley, Randy Jones, and Glenn Hughes reeled when record sales slumped in the early 1980s. “It felt like we’d been group-loved by the world, then all of a sudden group-rejected,” disclosed Hodo to Entertainment Weekly’s Cagle. Ray Simpson and Jeff Olson eventually replaced Willis and Jones, respectively, and the group struggled through bad times in the following years, only occasionally employed as singers and dancers. But disco music was revived as “trash disco” on the Southern club circuit by the end of the decade and crowds were again spelling out the letters “Y.M.C.A.” with their arms as they danced to the old favorite. The early 1990s saw a general revival of seventies music and fashion and the Village People, capitalizing on nostalgia, went back on the road; warmly greeted in the U.S and abroad, the boys were indeed back.
The Village People were a concept born in the mind of producer Jacques Morali in the late 1970s. A native of France, Morali studied music for ten years at the Paris Conservatory. He weathered a hodge-podge of musical experiences before becoming house composer at Paris’s Crazy Horse Saloon in 1975. His first hit on the music market was a conversion of Arriba Rosa’s song “Brazil” into a disco number. With money he borrowed to go to the States in 1976, Morali hired studio musicians to perform the song under the name the Ritchie Family. When Morali wanted to make a follow-up recording, the record companies he approached balked at his inability to deliver a bona fide group for promotional tours and live appearances. Since the Ritchie Family was just a creation based on the name of Morali’s collaborator, arranger Ritchie Rome, Morali needed to find live performers to make up the group. Not surprisingly, personnel problems ensued almost from the start. Morali fired the first set of Ritchie Family singers—all women—and replaced them with three ex-showgirls who made their debut at the wedding of Princess Caroline of Monaco.
While working out details with the Ritchie Family in 1977, Morali—who regularly patronized American discotheques—went to a New York gay bar called the Anvil. That night he noticed dancer Felipe Rose dressed as an Indian, complete with bells on his feet. Morali spotted Rose, clad again in Indian garb, a week later at a West Village disco called 12 West. Rose happened to be dancing near one man dressed as a cowboy and another wearing a construction hat. “And after that I say to myself,” Morali told Rolling Stone’s Emerson, “‘You know, this is fantastic’—to see the cowboy, the Indian, the construction worker with other men around. And also, I think in myself that the gay people have no group, nobody to personalize the gay people, you know? And I say to Felipe, ‘One of these days I’m going to employ you.’”
That same week, Morali began production of a disco record with masculine stereotypes in mind, but no set group of performers. “I never thought that straight audiences were going to catch on to it,” Morali divulged to Emerson. “I wanted to do something only for the gay market.” Working with lyricists Phil Hurtt and Peter Whitehead, Morali composed “Fire Island” and “San Francisco.” Actor and singer Victor Willis, who had appeared in the Broadway shows The River Niger and The Wiz, was enlisted to sing lead vocals on the tunes, joined by Alex Briley in the chorus. Morali photographed models clothed in leather, hard hat, and cowboy attire to pose on the record jacket and entitled the album Village People.
After sales of Village People reached over 200,00 on the disco circuit, Morali advertised in New York City’s Village Voice and show business papers for attractive gay singers and dancers with mustaches. “Why should you hire a group and spend all the money on them until you have a hit record first? You cannot ask the performers to leave their jobs and take the chance that the record will be a commercial success,” Morali asserted to Steven Gaines in New York magazine. After a lackluster initial performance on the television show Soul Train, Morali regrouped, recruiting Hodo, Jones, and Hughes to join Willis, Rose, and Briley. Attired as a construction worker, cowboy, biker, cop, Indian chief, and Gl, the Village People recorded the hit single “Macho Man” and graced the cover of the album from which it sprang—Macho Men. Willis and company provided the professionalism necessary to make Morali’s elaborate stage routines successful. “The album was an immediate success in the discos, but everyone agrees it is the act, which the Village People have been taking across the country for six months now, that has made the record an across-the-board smash,” explained Rolling Stone contributor Emerson in 1978.
Some gays recognized the Village People as a parody, but others, along with most of their straight audience, didn’t think too hard about the group’s image and simply relished their productions. By the late 1970s, Village People album sales totaled 18 million around the globe. In 1978 Morali sold his rights to the group to Bill Aucoin, manager of the rock group Kiss, for one million dollars. But, unable to maintain its huge momentum, the disco craze began to dwindle the next year. This coincided with the replacement of Victor Willis by Ray Simpson (brother of singing-songwriting duo Ashford and Simpson’s Valerie Simpson) as lead singer. By 1980, hamstrung by the box office failure of their movie, Can’t Stop the Music, the Village People found themselves in an abrupt downward spiral. A year later, the release of the album Renaissance —an attempt at a “new romantic,” new wave musical rebirth—was met by little success. In 1985 the group released the single “Sex on the Phone” to modest acclaim, but the real savior of the Village People was the disco revival of the decade’s end.
“Trash disco—in which modern youths recall bell-bottoms, platform shoes and polyester, and pine for the golden years of not so long ago by dancing on lighted dance floors to such faded luminaries as Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Parliament/Funkadelic, and the Gap Band—thrives in Dallas, Houston, and Austin,” reported Texas Monthly’s Joe Nick Patoski, citing appearances by the Village People in Dallas and Austin as the big events of the 1989 trash-disco season. By 1991, when a full-blown seventies fever gripped the hip across the U.S., the Village People were on tour in 75 cities across America and abroad. Costumed as of old, but celebrating with some new music, the Village People delighted audiences with their evocations of nostalgic imagery. “Everybody loves cowboys and Indians and anything American,” Hodo told Entertainment Weekly’s Cagle, relating how the group has always, “pushed a button universally.” Pushing that button remains the Village People’s impetus for musical and pop-culture glory.
Village People (includes “Fire Island” and “San Francisco”), Casablanca, 1977.
Macho Men (includes “Macho Man”), Casablanca, 1978.
Cruisin’, Casablanca, 1979.
Go West, Casablanca, 1979.
Renaissance, RCA, 1981.
Fox in the Box (not released in the U.S).
Greatest Hits, Rhino, 1988.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Entertainment Weekly, July 19, 1991.
New York, September 25, 1978.
Rolling Stone, October 5, 1978.
Texas Monthly, November 1989.
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