Victor Willis Wins

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.

Victor2
Cowboy, construction worker, Victor, Native American, leatherman and…suspender man?

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.

Victor4
Jacques Morali

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”.

Victor8
“Cruisin'”, with the Hot Cop, Victor Willis, front and center.

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.

Victor7
Shame on you, Allan Carr.

“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.

PhyliciaAllenjosephinefront-sm
Look at her eyes. I’d deny this, too.

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.

Victor
Victor victorious in downtown San Diego.

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.

Advertisements

Paying the Bills

We lost “country singer” Glen Campbell recently. Glen was “known” for his hits “Wichita Lineman”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Rhinestone Cowboy”. He was also known, unfortunately, for his struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease and for the “farewell tour” of recordings he’d been on since his diagnosis. His last album was called “Adios”. Perfect. It got me thinking of the unique situation he was in at the end of his career and life. He knew it was over and acted accordingly. One of the many terrible things about a terminal disease is the knowledge that death is coming and coming soon. While this is an incredibly horrific burden to bear for all involved, it opens interesting possibilities for the artist. If memory serves, Warren Zevon faced a similar situation. Diagnosed with cancer, Zevon rejected treatment that may have incapacitated him and instead focused on making a final album. The album featured many guest appearances and the recording sessions were documented by VH1. Notwithstanding the quality of the album, sentiments were high and the record charted and was nominated for five Grammys, winning two – the first of Zevon’s career. Country singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood was diagnosed with renal cancer and also went into the studio one last time. Zevon and Hazlewood shared a persona in that they neither cared one iota what the ‘hit parade’ may look like at any time in history but instead went with their guts, sometimes producing music that was inaccessible to the general public but was embraced by the industry, by critics and by the more discerning record buyer. Hazelwood’s final album was a completely different scenario to Zevon’s. Lee’s record featured zero celebrity guest stars and enjoyed zero chart activity or Grammy noms. But it was “Hazelwood” right down to the core and he was able to go out on his own terms.

glen-campbell-adios-final-album
Glen Campbell’s last album was released two months before he died. It went to #7 on the US Country charts and #2 in the UK.

Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while he was recording what would be his third last album, “Ghost on the Canvas”. He and his producers finished the album with the thinking that it would be his last. He embarked on a farewell tour announcing his diagnosis beforehand so fans would know what was up if things went wrong on stage. Glen was able to record two more albums. “See You There” is a startling testament. Glen revisits old hits and, to me, the strength of his voice is remarkable. Jimmy Webb’s “Postcards from Paris” from this album is one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard. “Adios” – his aptly titled final album – features a less vibrant sounding Glen joined by Willie Nelson and Roger Miller. The thing, though, that I always think of when I think of Glen Campbell is his reputation as a guitar virtuoso. When I was young and first heard this I found it hard to reconcile with the guy who hosted “Glen Campbell’s Good Time Hour” and sang “Rhinestone Cowboy”.

I first heard of Glen Campbell through the Beach Boys. I fell in love with Brian Wilson and his band when I was 12 years old.  Those who know will know that Brian left the touring band at the end of the seminal year 1964 to focus on songwriting and production and was replaced by Campbell. When I was a kid and read this it was a real head-scratcher: “what is Rhinestone Cowboy country guy doing in the Beach Boys?”. Fact is, Glen had already played on many Beach Boys hits as part of the famed ‘Wrecking Crew’. This was a crack group of session musicians that were used extensively in the Los Angeles area at the time. They deserve their own post as a case could be made that they played on almost EVERY significant artists’ songs throughout the 1960’s. The Wrecking Crew boasted excellent guitar players, one of which was Glen. The thing about being a session musician was you had to be good. Very good. You had to be able to translate an artist’s thoughts and ideas. You had to give voice to the directions and demands of producers who were looking for a particular sound. In this environment Glen Campbell became one of the best, one of the most respected and sought after musicians on the West coast. So it actually made perfect sense that he would replace Brian on the road, singing and playing bass at several shows at the end of 1964 and into the new year. Glen – and his fellow session musicians – were often called upon to be part of a “band” that had been created by an inspired record producer with an original idea.

By the late ’60’s, Glen Campbell was a good, ol’ boy from Arkansas who found himself the most technically proficient and the most in demand guitar player in Los Angeles. A virtuoso, adept at any and all types of music but with country in his soul. He chose to leave the comforts of the lucrative studio life and become a country music recording artist. This career path makes him unique, to come from the ranks of session musicians to strike out on his own and be successful. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of a performer taking this path. Sheryl Crow, I know, was a back-up singer before making her own records. Now Glen becomes very popular and successful as a country artist, scoring hits with “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. The general public has no way of knowing of his considerable ability on the guitar. He is, after all, ‘just’ a country singer. While his records didn’t call for it, in concert he was able to show off his incredible skill and YouTube videos can attest that he would often really cut loose in a live performance. Campbell is maybe first in a line of virtuoso guitarists that became popular as singers and personalities that were not necessarily known for their guitar playing prowess. Prince and Keith Urban come to mind. The kind of music they became popular for performing did not necessarily require or feature amazing guitar playing. But when unleashing a blistering solo was called for, all three could deliver. I always imagine people leaving a Glen Campbell show and being amazed that he could play like that. “Why doesn’t he do more of that?!” they may have asked. He didn’t because that was not what paid the bills.

This got me thinking of the many talented people throughout the years that have adopted a persona because it is acceptable and lucrative even though they would much rather be doing something else. The Hollywood studio system during the Golden Age is perhaps where this phenomenon originated. Typecasting was common and if you were an actor who had success in comedies, you made comedies or if you looked like the ‘wise father-type’, you played wise fathers. You can find many examples of this throughout history. Sometimes, it will be like Glen Campbell’s case; he was REALLY GOOD at something other than what he was known for. Other times, it will simply be a case of paying the bills – ‘this is what they know me as and they will pay to see me do this. They won’t pay to see me do what I really want to do’. Think Michael Jordan playing baseball.

People of a certain age will remember Roy Clark. Clark co-hosted a popular country and western-themed variety/comedy show throughout the 1970’s called “Hee Haw”. Roy was an affable country boy who picked and sang and acted in comedy sketches on this immensely popular show that lasted an astounding 23 seasons. Everybody knew Roy Clark as “the host of ‘Hee Haw'”. But Roy was possessed of a skill on stringed instruments that, while largely unknown, was substantial. His abilities on the violin, the banjo and on classical guitar have made him an enormous influence on generations of bluegrass and country musicians. Case in point: to see him play “Malaguena” on an episode of “The Odd Couple” is startling.

The aforementioned Brian Wilson is an interesting example of this phenomenon. As a young man, Brian had aspirations to become another Phil Spector: to be a producer of multiple acts, to have his own stable. In order to get on his feet in the music business, he formed a band with his brothers and cousin that hitched it’s wagon to the surf music trend of the early 1960’s. Unfortunately, the Beach Boys became exceedingly popular and Brian suddenly found himself trapped as the bass player of a surf band. It took mountains moving to even excuse him from tedious life on the road and he was finally able to stay at home and write and produce music; some of the greatest American music ever made. But his reputation was never able to soar above the apparent simplicity of the songs his band put out. Only those who really knew understood his genius and appreciated the harmonic complexity of his work. In keeping with the Beach Boys, both of Brian’s brothers – Carl and Dennis – put out solo records during their decades-long tenures with the band. They also could not emerge from the long shadows and – after exercising their creativity outside the fold – they realized that they had to ‘pay the bills’ – and this meant returning to the band and continuing to be ‘Beach Boys’.

brianw4
The record company wanted Brian Wilson to just stay a “Beach Boy”. But he couldn’t help being a genius.

Along the same lines you have another legendary band from the 1960’s, The Monkees. Originally, the four boys had signed on to be on a TV show – not in a band. The show lasted only two years but the band as a musical entity continued to enjoy popularity after the show ended. Eventually, all four members became proficient musicians and wanted to operate as such and they eventually released albums utilizing their own talents. Then, later on, each had a desire to make their own records – to be solo acts. There must have been times – and this has happened with many bands – when each member had written a song they were proud of. They would have loved to have gone into the studio, recorded the song and maybe nine others for an album, released it and toured behind it and promoted it on television talk shows. But the chances of the public buying a record by Peter Tork were low. One by “The Monkees”? Much higher. Therefore, they had to hang on to their songs and wait until the next “Monkees” project could be put together. Another variation of this can be seen in the case of the Grass Roots. An excellent pop/rock band of the late ’60’s, the Grass Roots employed a horn section which set them apart at the time. The band was actually created by producers P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. The famous Wrecking Crew studio band played on the original songs backing up the vocals of Sloan. When one of these early songs – “Where Were You When I Needed You?” – became a hit, Sloan and Barri had to find an actual band that would become “The Grass Roots”. The “band” went through three incarnations during their hit years. Each time, the producers found an existing band who were not ‘paying the bills’ very well under their own steam and would agree to forego their identity and take up the already-popular moniker – become “The Grass Roots” – and record high quality material in a polished and professional environment. Twice the enlisted bands bristled under the strict direction they were getting and went back to doing things themselves. Interestingly, throughout “The Grass Roots”‘s existence, even with all the changing personnel and the fabricated nature of the proceedings, they put out great songs and had chart success.

untitled
The Monkees were labelled “phony” for not playing their own instruments. The same was the case, though, with many other groups.

Tom Jones is another great example. Like most men of his age from the UK, Jones was a huge fan of American blues, r&b and rock ‘n’ roll. When he started out in the business, that’s the kind of music he sang. He was basically a white Wilson Pickett. As he began to become popular, managers and agents became involved. Part of their jobs was to find their clients (who generally didn’t write their own songs) quality material to record. Tom’s handlers came across “It’s Not Unusual”, a song they thought would suit him well. Tom wasn’t so sure. He was a ‘shouter’, after all and this track they wanted him to do was not that. It was very middle-of-the-road and horn-based; not the bleating saxes he was used to but popping trumpets. But, of course, he did it and, of course, it was a huge, international success. His people began to bring him more of the same – and country and western. Next thing you know he is extremely popular but he is not recording the type of music he really wants to. He’s not being the type of singer he really is. Then the money and stardom that Las Vegas in the 1970’s can provide is offered to him and he accepts. Now he’s really not Wilson Pickett. But he’s paying the bills. Which brings to mind what you hear from a lot of singers, usually white males. ‘I love rhythm and blues, I love Elvis Presley, I love Jackie Wilson and all the old singers’ – but what these white males record and have success with is nowhere near what purists would call “rhythm and blues”.

Tom-Jones
Tommy Woodward from Wales may have been the original blue-eyed soul blues belter. Until a worldwide smash hit came along.

Speaking of Elvis Presley, he and Sam Cooke both wanted nothing more than to be gospel singers. They both, basically, had to compromise. They both became legends in their respective fields – rock ‘n’ roll and soul – and both lovingly recorded some gospel music throughout their careers, albeit ‘on the side’. I’ve always loved the film “The Fabulous Baker Boys”. Real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges portray Jack and Frank Baker, two legends of the piano bar circuit. After umpteen years of this however, Jeff’s character, Jack, is fed up. He has always loved jazz and plays it anonymously in small clubs every chance he gets. As time goes on, he becomes more and more disillusioned with ‘paying the bills’ by playing music he hates while continually putting his jazz dreams on hold. He’s making money playing “Feelings”. He won’t make much playing “‘Round Midnight” in smoky clubs but that’s what he decides he needs.

Speaking of jazzbos, Charlie Watts is a fascinating example of a guy who’s been ‘paying the bills’ for almost 60 years. The legendary drummer of “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” – the Rolling Stones – is a jazz man at heart. As an aside, the man is also a graphic artist and has designed many of the album covers and stage set-ups the band has used over the years. Wikipedia states it plainly and, I think, comically: “Although he has made his name in rock, his personal tastes lie principally in jazz”. Which is very not rock. The guy’s been considered one of the top 12 rock drummers ever and he doesn’t even like it all that much! As early as the late 1970’s, he has put together jazz ensembles for live performance and for recordings. He has put out jazz records with “The Charlie Watts Quintet” and “The Charlie Watts Tentet”. Those of you who have ever seen him play with the Stones in concert or video will know that he always looks like he’s embarrassed or he’d rather be 100 miles away from Mick as he prances and Keith as he twitches and stumbles. Watts has stayed faithful – faithful – to his wife of 53 years, abused alcohol for only three years in the 1980’s, sketches every hotel room he’s ever stayed in, beat throat cancer which showed up 20 years after he quit smoking, has showed up for years on Best Dressed lists and now lives in a rural village in England and raises horses with his wife. He is one sedate cat who just happens to play drums for maybe the wildest band in history. Hey, it pays the bills.

636003997233899987-EPA-FILE-GERMANY-BRITAIN-MUSIC-WATTS-BIRTHDAY
The very chill jazzbo, Charlie Watts. Surrounded by madmen.