It’s interesting, isn’t it, how some things just stay in your head. And it’s not always the significant things. I’m sure there are pivotal moments in my life that I just don’t recall with that much clarity but some goofy, little things I remember clearly.
One such ‘goofy, little’ thing for me is a faded snapshot I have in my head of being about ten years old and being in a neighbour’s basement in the early 1980’s and looking at their vinyl copy of the Village People’s second album, “Macho Man” from 1978. I remember that I liked a couple of their songs but what I remember really striking me was the sound and look and cool name of their lead singer, Victor Willis. I thought he had a fantastic, virile voice and was a cool looking dude. I eventually owned their third album, 1978’s “Cruisin'”, on 8-track but as the years went by, I generally kept them at bay, owing to a public backlash and a general perception of them as a ridiculous and dated disco group that predominantly catered to homosexual males.
I also remember when I was older – in the early ’90’s – yammering on about how I was a true rock ‘n’ roller and how I hated all hip hop and acts like Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. In the back of my mind, though, I’d be thinking how the beat of songs like “It Takes Two” was catchy and maybe not so bad. Eventually, I came to openly embrace all music – even that which I could not defend. The Village People and all of disco, really, fell into this category of music you knew was kind of lame but, dang, if you didn’t love it!
Which would bring me back to my man, Victor Willis. Victor was born in Dallas in 1951 and, like a lot of people of his generation, began singing in church. In Victor’s case, he started in his father’s Baptist church. He moved to New York as a young man and joined the Negro Ensemble Company, a theatre group that was dedicated to presenting works documenting the black experience that got it’s start in part with funding from Al Bell of Stax Records. The spotlight shone on this group significantly in 1981 when it presented “A Soldier’s Play”, the story of the murder of a black soldier at a US Army barracks in the south during World War 2. The play starred Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and James Pickens, Jr.. It was made into an Academy Award-nominated film. Other members of this venerable institution, which continues to thrive today, include: Debbie Allen, John Amos, Angela Bassett, Bill Duke, Giancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Louis Gossett, Jr., David Alan Grier, Sherman Hemsley, Delroy Lindo, Garrett Morris, Phylicia Rashad, Esther Rolle, Richard Roundtree and, our man, Victor Willis.
Victor was in the original Broadway production of “The Wiz” in 1976 and then decided to go into a studio to record a demo tape of songs he had written. The tape eventually made it into the hands of one Jacques Morali. Morali was a Frenchman born in Morocco who had an extensive music career in France starting in the late 1960’s. He eventually teamed up with Henri Belolo, who happened to also be a Frenchman born in Morocco. The two moved to New York City to try their hand in the North American market. The partners represented a common team seen often in music history; non-performers who wrote songs looking for singers. The two were ready to create acts they would package and present to the world.
In 1977, this team of Moroccan-born Frenchmen – they called themselves “Cant Stop Productions” – had songs prepared but no one to sing them when they received Victor’s demo tape. Morali and Belolo were excited by Victor’s dynamic voice and met with Willis. Morali told him that he had had a dream in which Victor sang his songs and they were hugely successful. An alliance was born. Now, they just needed an act – so Morali invented one. Morali was a gay man who frequented gay discos in Greenwich Village. As he was being exposed to the “macho male stereotypes” he saw in these clubs, the idea came to him to form a group that would feature different gay fantasy figures. Now that he had a singer, he surrounded Victor with a studio band and went in to make a record.
“Village People” was released on Casablanca Records in the summer of ’77 and was a success. The album – featuring only the four songs Morali had started with, clocking in at just over 20 minutes – reached #54 in the US, 36 on the US Top R&B /Hip-Hop Albums chart and 21 in Australia. As demands for personal appearances poured in, Morali saw the need to create a group of dancers and musicians to surround Victor for live appearances. Victor and Morali worked together recruiting and also sent out a legendary ad that started to appear in the trades. In terms of recruitment ads in music history, this one ranks up there with the one that built The Monkees: “Macho types wanted”, the ad said, “must dance and have a moustache”. True story.
Once the official line-up was in place, photos were taken for publicity and for the cover of the second album, which had already been recorded. “Macho Man”, released in early 1978, featured six songs, five co-written by Victor. The other song was the standard “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”, if you can believe it. The single “Macho Man” was the group’s first hit, charting at #25 in the US and going Top Ten in Australia and New Zealand. Following “Macho Man” on the record was the track “I Am What I Am”, a song that became a touchstone for the gay community, a community that was just “coming out” in the late ’70’s. Victor’s lyrics were a statement of liberation and not just for the gay community. It was also aimed at those who simply dressed differently and wanted to be different so all could relate. It is very interesting to note that Victor – a heterosexual – was able to write lyrics that all people could relate to but also that the gay community, specifically, could call their own. Another song on the album was “Key West”, singing the praises of the southern most tip of the US; a city also welcoming to the gay community. And I have to mention the final song on the album: “Sodom and Gomorrah”.
The third album, “Cruisin'”, was released 7 months after “Macho Man”. It cemented the Village People as leaders in the disco and the club scenes. First, there was the title of the album which was a double entendre. Yes, it referred to the age old tradition of driving around but, as of late, the term had come to refer to the act of “cruising”; gay men looking for liaisons with other gay men. There is a track on this album called “I’m a Cruiser”. “Cruisin'” was the first Village People album to contain songs written exclusively by Victor and Jacques Morali; or at least they were credited that way. Again, it’s interesting to note that Victor was able to write lyrics that were easily adopted by the gay community. Perhaps more than all this was the opening track on the album: “Y.M.C.A.”. The story goes that, during a conversation, Victor was recalling the fun he had had at the YMCA in his youth. He was talking about it in reference to it’s standing in the history of black urban youth as it was a place to meet and play sports; it kept them off the streets. Morali had never heard of the YMCA and when Victor explained that it was a place where young men met, Morali got excited and thought it would make a great song for the Village People. Victor wrote the lyrics up here, in Vancouver. Victor Willis is from Texas. His group was based in New York City and was emblematic of the scene in Greenwich Village. The group was ran by two Moroccan-born Frenchmen. And “Y.M.C.A.” was written in Canada!
The song was a massive hit. It’s hard to properly assess this song, actually, because of it’s place in the very fabric of society and culture. Suffice it to say that it has become synonymous with fun, good times and excitement, constantly heard at sporting events, weddings and parties. The song peaked at #2 in the US and was #1 on 16 charts around the world. Consider that is one of fewer than 40 singles that have sold in excess of 10 million physical copies worldwide. 10 million. Remember that: our man, Victor Willis from Dallas, writes a song that 10 million people have bought. It becomes one of the best-selling songs ever. “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. “We Are the World”. “My Heart Will Go On”. “White Christmas”….and “Y.M.C.A.”. The “Cruisin'” album went to #3 in the US and was #1 in parts of Europe. The album also contained “Hot Cop” which became Victor’s strutting anthem.
“Go West” (March, 1979) was another successful album featuring songs co-written by Victor including the hits “Go West” and “In the Navy”. In ’79, the group found themselves on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine and touring North America. However, Victor Willis left the group at the end of the tour. Subsequently, he was able to avoid being a part of the disaster that was “Can’t Stop the Music”. This 1980 musical comedy film was the sole feature film directed by actress Nancy Walker. Yes, that Nancy Walker. The film was supposed to be a “‘Singin’ in the Rain’ for the disco crowd” and “starred” Bruce Jenner. The film is notable as being one of the worst ever and was the inspiration for the Razzie Awards – it won the first ever Golden Raspberry for Worst Picture. After Victor left, Village People never had another hit.
Post-Village People, Victor refused offers to record and perform and distanced himself from the group. He unfortunately also battled drug addiction for many years. He was married to Phylicia Rashad for four years ending in 1982. Victor had written the lyrics for Phylicia’s 1978 album “Josephine Superstar”. Produced by Victor and Jacques Morali, the album was a disco concept album (?) that told the life story of Josephine Baker. You can’t make this stuff up. Interestingly, I have read that Rashad has denied the existence of this record. Wouldn’t you?
After Victor left at the end of 1979, Village People went in a disastrous direction. Without Victor to write the words of the songs – thereby helping to define their identity by creating exactly what it was the group sang about – the quality of the records plummeted. Village People came up with songs like “Ready for the 80’s”: “I’m ready for the eighties, glad to be alive. I’m waiting for those magic numbers to arrive”. Like, really? The horrors continued with 1981’s “Renaissance” album. The plan was to re-style the group into a new wave act. The results are such that I can’t even relate them properly here. I read a review that declared the record an “embarrassment that never should have seen the light of day”. I had to do some soul searching about whether or not to share the album cover here. I decided not to, out of respect to my readers. Victor was coaxed back by Morali for the 1982 album “Fox on the Box” but the album was a failure – it was not released in the US – and Victor left again for good.
Fast forward to 2012. Victor has emerged from the Betty Ford Clinic having conquered addictions that have lead to trouble with the law. He is ready to start his life anew with a new bride. Karen, bless her, is a lawyer and an entertainment executive. She mentions to Victor something about “Termination Rights”. What happens next is nothing short of historic.
It’s a common story in the music business, as old as the business itself. Young, talented individuals have stories to tell. But how to get their stories to the world? This is where the “business” part of “show business” rears it’s sometimes ugly head. Managers, agents and publishers get involved. In Victor’s case, he was approached by Jacques Morali with an offer that would make Victor a star. Victor was young and signed on the dotted line without knowing all the ramifications. He says himself that he signed one contract that he never even read. All through the years, he was looked after, yes, and enjoyed all the trappings of stardom. He was credited on all the songs he contributed lyrics to and paid; but minimally.
The Termination Rights clause was added to copyright law in 1978 and states that after a period of 35 years, a composer may recover control of their songs even if they had signed away the rights. In September of 2013, after a five year legal battle, Victor Willis became the first significant artist to emerge from court triumphant, his copyrights rightfully, accurately and fully restored. I say ‘significant’ artist because there is a hit song involved here. I mentioned earlier that “Y.M.C.A.” was a major hit, eventually selling in excess of 10 million copies. But more than that the song has gone on to become something more than a song. It means something. If you hear it in a film, it means joy or success. Exuberance. If you hear it in a commercial, the ad men are trying to tell you that happiness accompanies their product. If you hear it at a ballgame, it signifies the unifying celebration that supporting your team and this ageless pastime involves. Needless to say, “Y.MC.A.” has gone further; it’s iconic. And, now, Victor Willis has gained considerable control over how it is used.
Additionally, in 2015, it was determined in court that Victor and Jacques Morali were the only two writers of many Village People hits. Morali’s business partner, Henri Belolo, also had his name attached as co-writer. This is something else common in the music business. People can be given a songwriting credit for many reasons other than having contributed to the creation of the song. Now, instead of a third, Victor rightfully receives a half share of royalties (note: Morali died of AIDS in 1991).
For their part, the publishing companies that previously controlled the Village People’s catalog countered that Victor – like all songwriters – worked on a “for hire” basis. They were employed by publishing companies so therefore any works they created belonged to ‘the firm’. This argument didn’t fly in court and Victor emerged victorious. It will no doubt set a precedent for others facing Victor’s predicament.
Today, Victor Willis is 67 years old. He currently makes appearances, performs live and continues to record. Which is all wonderful. But he will forever be known by what he has already given us. It’s more than just acceptable to enjoy the Village People today, it’s actually recommended. They are an exciting reminder of an interesting moment in time. It is made all that much more enjoyable with the knowledge that one of the creators of this iconic sound has been justly rewarded with a healthy retirement fund. Victor Willis wins.