Macho Men

You don’t get more iconic than the Village People. In an era of glittering disco balls, dances like the Hustle, and clubs running on BeeGees and Donna Summer hits, this six-man group seemed to come out of nowhere to take the genre by storm with its catchy tunes and suggestive lyrics.
This “macho man” costumed ensemble including a cop, cowboy, construction worker, Indian, military man and leather-clad dude were all over the music charts and appeared on all of the popular television shows in the late ’70s.
That storm may have come and gone, but anywhere and anytime that most recognizable of songs comes on, everyone is doing the “choreography,” making the arm movements to “Y.M.C.A.,” without fail.
Their music has become part of the international songbook and the group’s hits are featured in dozens of major movies, on Broadway, in commercials and in “Village People Party” slot machines.
The story of the group was sort of like the Monkees beginning, but in reverse. When their TV show and music generated for the show became more popular than expected, the guys who were portraying musicians actually had to become musicians.
The Village People began in 1977, when producer Jacques Morali and his business partner Henri Belolo (known as Can’t Stop Productions) were recording a new album for their hit group the Ritchie Family. They needed background singers. Horace Ott, the arranger/conductor who was working with them, suggested Victor Willis, a singer who Ott was working with on a solo album and who was performing in the Broadway musical The Wiz. After Willis completed background on the album, Morali approached him about another musical project he and Belolo were planning which turned out to be Village People.
“I had a dream that you sang lead vocals on an album I produced, and it went very, very big,” Morali told Willis at the time. “I have four tracks. I can’t pay you much right now but if you agree, I’ll make you a star.” Willis agreed.
Those initial four tracks, “San Francisco (You’ve Got Me”), “In Hollywood (Everyone’s a Star”), “Fire Island,” and “Village People,” were recorded by Willis under the auspices of “Village People” with use of professional background singers, and released as the group’s debut album in 1977. The album quickly climbed to the top of the dance charts and became an international hit.
Demand for “Village People” to appear in concert and on television shows like “American Bandstand” and “Merv Griffin” was great. The only problem — the “Village People” was Victor Willis. So Morali, Belolo and Willis had to put together an actual group, quickly. Morali and Belolo had already met Felipe Rose who dressed as a Native American. They recruited him. Willis hand-picked Alex Briley, who he’d previously worked with in a musical.
They quickly assembled the original lineup which appeared with Victor (dressed as a disco king) on “American Bandstand” consisting of seven members: Mark Mussler (construction worker), David Forrest (cowboy), Lee Mouton (leatherman), Peter Whitehead (nondescript), Felipe Rose (Indian), and Alex Briley (nondescript). After that appearance, an ad was placed in a trade paper for new members which read: “Macho Types Wanted for World-Famous Disco Group — Must Dance and Have a Moustache.” Randy Jones, Glenn Hughes and David Hodo answered the call, and the six-member classic lineup was soon in place.
Casablanca Records and Filmworks, the group’s label, having had success with the first release, got behind the second album Macho Man with full promotion and marketing. Village People became an international phenomenon and quickly followed with their third album, the five-times platinum Cruisin (which featured the blockbuster hit “Y.M.C.A.”). They embarked on a worldwide tour in 1979 to coincide with the release of their fourth album, Go West.
The group quickly became popular and moved into the mainstream, scoring several disco and dance hits internationally, including the hit singles “Macho Man,” “In the Navy,” “Go West,” and their biggest hit, “Y.M.C.A.,” which was also one of the biggest hits of the ’70s.
In 1979, the United States Navy considered using their single “In the Navy” in a television and radio recruiting campaign. Belolo offered them permission if the Navy would help film a music video for it. The Navy provided them access to the San Diego Navy base, where the USS Reasoner (FF-1063), several aircraft, and the crew of the ship would be used. This song was also performed on the TV series “The Love Boat,” and in the 1995 Navy comedy movie Down Periscope.
The group’s fame peaked in 1979, when they made several appearances on “The Merv Griffin Show” and traveled with Bob Hope to entertain U.S. troops. They were also featured on the cover of Rolling Stone, in April 1979. Willis left the group at the end of an international tour in 1979 and was replaced by Ray Stephens, Miles Jaye and Raymond Simpson, the brother of Valerie Simpson (of Ashford & Simpson), and who served the longest.
The group has received many honors and awards, including the American Music Award for Favorite Musical Group, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The group went on to star in the 1980 movie Can’t Stop the Music. The group has sold more than 100 million records worldwide and continues to break records. In 2004 BMI recognized “Y.M.C.A.” as exceeding 1 million airplays. In 2017, “Y.M.C.A.” made UK’s Official Millionaires Chart ­— songs that have reached 1 million in combined sales/streams.
Over the years, various incarnations of the group have consistently toured the world along with original members Felipe Rose and Alex Briley.
For the group’s 40th anniversary, Victor Willis returned and is back at the helm. Backed by a live band (no pre-recorded tracks), Village People continues to thrill concert-goers around the world — as they did back in the day. The current lineup includes Willis (cop/admiral), Angel Morales (Native American), James Kwong (construction worker), Chad Freeman (cowboy), Sonny Earl (G.I.), and James J.J. Lippold (leatherman).
Due to their easily recognizable characters, the group has frequently been imitated or parodied in movies, television series, video games and music. Numerous covers and homages of their songs have been recorded, and most recently they were parodied in the 2013 movie, Despicable Me 2.


VILLAGE PEOPLE

The E Center at the Edgewater

Saturday, July 7 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets