Village People was the brainchild of the French music producer/promoter Jacques Morali. The group was a concept formed of the idea to exploit/appeal to the gay demographic of the 1970s disco scene. The name comes from Greenwich Village in New York City, which boasted both an active gay community and a lively disco scene.
The first, self-titled Village People album, released in 1977, did not have the whole cast on board yet. The Philadelphia songwriter/producer Phil Hurtt
did vocal arrangements on these sessions, and was offered the role of lead singer by the group's impresario, Jacques Morali. Hurtt didn't want the gig, but suggested one of the background singers for the role: Victor Willis. Morali often embellished the story by saying that he had a dream about producing an album with Willis' singing, but it really happened by circumstance.
The first Village Person was the Indian: Felipe Rose. He was on his way to work as a dancer at the gay nightclub Anvil in Greenwich Village, New York, when the Jacques Morali spotted him. Rose was in costume (headdress, bells...), which intrigued Morali, who followed him inside and plied him with questions. Along with his business partner Henri Belolo, Morali conceived the Village People that night, with Rose (whose father was Sioux) playing the Indian, a role he held until 2017, when Willis took control of the group.
To populate this Village, Jacques Morali placed ads in music trade magazines which read "Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Mustache." (Vocal talent was not necessary, since they wouldn't be singing on their records). Felipe Rose was and Victor Willis were already on board, and the only two real members among the eight guys on the cover of their debut album. Next came Alex Briley, who was Willis' friend and worked in musical theater. He was assigned the role of soldier (GI). The other three came from auditions: dancers Randy Jones (cowboy) and David Hodo (construction worker) along with tollbooth operator Glenn Hughes (leatherman). Hughes was the only member who wasn't already in the entertainment industry.
In April 1979, they became the first disco act to go on an arena tour. The Bee Gees could fill arenas, but they didn't get their tour underway until June that year.
The chief lyricists for the group's first album were Phil Hurtt and Peter Whitehead, who were brought in because producer Morali was French and couldn't speak English. Whitehead was gay, and wrote lyrics that Morali deemed too lascivious for mainstream consumption. He had Hurtt - a proven wordsmith whose hits include "I'll Be Around
" by The Spinners - to clean them up, which he did. Their first single, "San Francisco (You've Got Me)
," became more about the fun and excitement of the city and less explicitly about the gay scene there, and it was a success, charting in the UK at #45 and in America at #102.
Their 1978 breakout single "Y.M.C.A.
" was named after the American institution "Young Men's Christian Association," which was supposed to be a club for young men but in reality was a popular "hook-up" for gay men (these days, YMCA's are family recreation areas). The song was not done as a commercial for the organization, and in fact the YMCA was going to sue. Then they noticed that their membership was going up as the song grew more popular. Today they embrace it, even using the song on the official YMCA website.
Lead singer Victor Willis is not gay, and has always downplayed the gay references in the lyrics, claiming they are universal themes. In the group's heyday, Willis was married to Phylicia Ayers-Allen, who later starred on The Cosby Show.
Following up to the success of "Y.M.C.A.," the United States Navy contacted Village People to seek a similar song for the navy. The song "In The Navy
" resulted, with the video being filmed on the deck of the warship USS Reasoner in dock at the San Diego Naval Base. The US Navy never ended up using the video for recruitment, because political groups started raising a fuss about US tax dollars going to using a "gay group" to promote the military.
Village People's single "Macho Man" was also a big charting hit in 1978, peaking at #25. It still continues to be used in commercials, TV shows, films, and other media to this day. Film and television soundtrack usage includes the Terminator, Addams' Family, Nutty Professor, and Simpsons franchises. It's also gotten parody versions on Saturday Night Live and the Muppet Show, and even got a Disney cover by none other than Donald Duck on the Mickey Mouse Disco album, as "Macho Duck."
The group hung it up in 1985, in part because their career was positively torpedoed by their disastrous film Can't Stop the Music in 1980. With a budget of $20 million, it took in $2 million, one of the biggest net losses in film-making history. The film's failure was partly due to the fading of disco's popularity, giving it a world-class case of bad timing. It also became the first film to win a "Golden Raspberry" award, since Raspberrys started in 1980 as well. The group re-formed in 1987 and have performed in various permutations ever since.
Victor Willis wrote the lyrics to most of the group's songs after their first album. He signed over the copyrights to the songs, but got them back in a landmark 2013 ruling that upheld a 1978 law giving composers their credits back after 35 years.
Willis left for a solo career in 1980, but returned in 1982. He left again the following year and stayed under the radar until 2017, when he obtained the rights to the Village People name and image from the group's co-creator, Henri Belolo. He assembled his cast of characters and started touring; the group that had been the Village People became "The Kings of Disco."