Village People History
Village People is one of the most iconic music groups in the world. Their music has become part of the international songbook. The group’s hits are featured in dozens of major motion pictures, on Broadway, in commercials and in “Village People Party” slot machines. Of course, Y.M.C.A (along with its dance) is played at almost every party, wedding, bar mitzvah, and sporting event in the universe.
It began in 1977 when producer Jacques Morali and his business partner Henri Belolo (Can’t Stop Productions) were recording a new album for their hit group the Ritchie Family, called African Queen and 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. “I have four tracks. I can’t pay you much right now but if you agree, I’ll make you a star.” Willis agreed and the rest is history.
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 the “Village People” to appear in concert and on television shows like American Bandstand and Merv Griffin was great. The only problem … “Village People” was Victor Willis! So Morali, Belolo and Willis had to put together an actual group … and quick. Morali and Belolo had already met Felipe Rose who dressed as a Native American. They recruited him. Willis brought in Alex Briley, who he’d previously worked with in a musical.
The quickly assembled original lineup which appeared with Victor on American Bandstand was Mark Mussler (Construction Worker), David Forrest (Cowboy), Lee Mouton (Leatherman) and Peter Whitehead (nondescript). After that appearance, an ad was placed in a trade paper for ‘permanent’ 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 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 double-platinum Cruisin (which featured the blockbuster “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 has received many honors and awards, including the American Music Award for Favorite Musical Group, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone.
After Willis exited in late 1979, several replacement singers took over as lead singer of the group, including Ray Stephens, Miles Jaye and Raymond Simpson (who served the longest). The group went on to star in the 1980 movie Can’t Stop the Music.
Over the years, various renditions of the group have consistently toured the world along with original members Felipe Rose and Alex Briley, including Raymond Simpson (cop), Jeff Olson (cowboy), Mark Lee (Construction Worker), Bill Whitefield (Construction Worker), Eric Anzalone (Biker), and James Newman (Cowboy).
With hits like San Francisco/In Hollywood, Macho Man, Y.M.C.A., In the Navy and Go West, 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 one million airplays. In 2017, Y.M.C.A. made UK’s Official Millionaires Chart – songs that have reached 1 million in combined sales/streams.
For the 40th anniversary of the group, Victor Willis returned and is now back at the helm. Backed by a live band, Village People continues to thrill concert-goers around the world — as they did back in the day.
Village People is: Victor Willis (Cop/Admiral), Angel Morales (Native American), James Kwong (Construction Worker), Chad Freeman (Cowboy), James Lee (G.I.), and J.J. Lippold (Leatherman).