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YMCA - Village People
French composer-producer Jacques Morali came to the United States as the winner of a 20th Century-Fox slogan contest. While in New York, he attended a costume ball at Les Mouches, a gay disco in Greenwich Village. As he gazed around the room, Morali was impressed by all the "macho male stereotypes" portrayed by the party guests. The idea came to him: Why not put together a group of singers and dancers, each one playing a different gay fantasy figure?
Felipé Rose, a professional dancer, came that night as an American Indian. He was cast as the first "image." Next came singer Alexander Briley, as the uniformed GI/sailor. Victor Willis, who had been in such Broadway musicals as The Wiz and The River Niger, rounded out the trio as lead singer and lyricist. His role was as the naval commander and part-time policeman. As all had been recruited from Greenwich Village, Morali decided to call them the Village People.
Their first album, The Village People, was released in 1977 and aimed directly at the gay market. Soon after it hit, auditions were held for three more members. TV actor Randy Jones was hired as a cowboy. Glenn Hughes, a former Brooklyn Battery Tunnel toll collector, came in as a leather-clad biker (a role he played in real life as well, he claimed). And last but not least was David "Scar" Hodo, the muscular construction worker in mirrored shades. A great lover of bizarre stunts, his passion for roller skating while eating fire had landed him on "What's My Line?"
The title cut from their second album, Macho Man was a small hit in the summer of 1978 (the album itself went platinum). Then in the fall, they released their third album, Cruisin'. From that came their biggest single, "YMCA."
"We were always very positive about our energy and what we did," said Randy. "We never sang about broken hearts, lost love, or shattered dreams. We always dealt with positive things, and a very positive place is the YMCA. I think people had forgotten about Y's and their positive qualities. They've provided food, shelter, and spiritual encouragement for a lot of people for more than a century. They provide excellent physical programs for young and old, and it's a very positive institution. That's why we decided to sing about it."
At first, Y officials were alarmed by the song. They didn't know who the Village People were or what they represented (although they certainly heard stories). They also weren't sure if the tune was a tribute, a ripoff, or a slap in the face.
"We understood their point of view," Randy explained, "and we talked about it before we cut the song. YMCA is a trademark, and a trademark must be protected. If they allowed one person or one group to violate their rights, that would make YMCA public domain, and there'd be YMCA toothpaste, YMCA T-shirts, YMCA towels, everything. David and I tried to communicate this to our producers, but couldn't get through. Then, when 'YMCA' became a big hit, there was a legal decision that those letters are the property of the Young Men's Christian Association. By that time, though, the Y was thinking of our song as a free commercial, so everything was cool."
According to Rolling Stone, "YMCA" sold more than twelve million copies, worldwide. It spent a full half-year on the charts, peaking in February 1979.
The Village People had one other major hit, "In the Navy," in the spring of that year. Then, in the fall, lead singer Willis, dissatisfied with their direction, quite the group "by mutual agreement." This happened days before shooting was to begin on their first motion picture, Can't Stop the Music. Ray Simpson was brought in to replace Willis, but somehow things just weren't the same. Released in June of 1980, the film -- which featured "YMCA" -- was a box-office disaster.
In 1981, the Village People reorganized and briefly renounced their disco roots. Full-page ads in the music trades displayed their new look and future sound -- as Bowiesque punk rockers. Through the decade the Village People were all but forgotten in the U.S., but the group maintained a large international following and performed throughout the world. After 1985's "Sex on the Phone" flopped in the States and barely cracked the Top 60 in the U.K. (where "YMCA" reigned as one of that nation's top 25 best-selling records of all time), the group took a hiatus. The current lineup, which includes Simpson, four original members, and Jeff Olson, has appeared, among other places, at the wholesome Walt Disney World in Florida.
Reflecting on his group, Glenn Hughes (The Biker) once said, "If our popularity was based strictly on the costumes and the gimmicks we would have been a flash in the pan. The thing that has brought the Village People to fame and kept us working is that we are professional entertainers who sing and dance. We have crossed every age, race, and lifestyle barrier because whether you like our music or not or whether you like the characters or not and whether you take it seriously or as a joke, you leave the room entertained." On March 4, 2001, Hughes became the first of the six original Village People members to pass away, succumbing to lung cancer in his Manhattan home.