The Story Behind “Y.M.C.A.”

village-people-ymca-1978-12By Gary Theroux

French composer-producer Jacques Morali came to the United States as the winner of a 20th Century Fox slogan contest. Captivated by the effervescent sound of disco, he soon found work co-producing the Philadelphia-based Ritchie Family (“Brazil,” 1975; “The Best Disco in Town,” 1976).

While in New York, Jacques attended a costume ball at Les Mouches, a gay nightclub in Greenwich Village. As he gazed around the room, Morali was enchanted by all the outlandish macho male stereotypes portrayed by the partygoers. The idea came to him: why not put together a group of singers who could each portray a different gay fantasy figure? Now that would be something different!

At the club Jacques spotted bartender Felipe Rose, who happened to be dancing dressed as an American Indian with jingle bells on his boots. Felipe quickly agreed to become the act’s first iconic character. Next hired was Broadway veteran Victor Willis, whom Morali caught onstage in “The Wiz.” Victor not only took on lead vocals and wrote lyrics but also portrayed both a cop and naval commander. It was he who suggested rounding out the trio with Alexander Briley as a uniformed military man. As all three lived in the Greenwich Village area, Morari decided to call his new masterwork “The Village People.”

Bubblegum producer Neil Bogart got wind of the concept and signed the group to his newly formed Casablanca label. Bogart had earned his stripes as the mastermind behind a string of short-lived acts (The Lemon Pipers, The Ohio Express, etc.) and considered the Village People to be just another in his string of quirky flash-in-the-pan novelty offerings. Neil, in fact, thought of nearly every act on the Casablanca roster — from KISS to Donna Summer — as novelty creations destined for fleeting fame. Donna, for example, had been signed on the strength of the then unreleased single “Love to Love You Baby” — which Neil viewed as a potential one-shot fluke hit 45. You can imagine how stunned Bogart, who has never thought in terms of long-running album artists, was when Summer turned out to be one of the decade’s most prolific and enduring LP and 45 hitmakers.

As expected, The Village People’s self-titled debut album took off in gay discos and wound up selling more than a million copies in 1977.  Soon after, Morali took out an ad in the music trades, which read, “Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance and Have a Moustache.” A flurry of auditions resulted in three additional Village People: aspiring actor Randy Jones as a greenhorn cowboy, Brooklyn Battery toll collector Glenn Hughes as a leather-clad biker and muscle-bound David “Scar” Hodo as a construction worker who sported mirrored shades.

The title song from the second Village People LP, “Macho Man,” became a million-selling single in the summer of 1978 while the album itself went platinum. The group began touring — often featuring, as their opening act, a young up-and-comer whom we’d later know as Madonna. In the fall, The Village People released their third LP, “Cruisin’.” Another platinum seller, it contained the group’s all-time greatest hit.

“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 Ys and their positive qualities. They’ve provided food, shelter and spiritual encouragement to 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. They didn’t know who The Village People were or what they represented (although they’d certainly heard stories). They also couldn’t tell if the song was a tribute, a rip-off or some kind of backhanded slap in the face. And what did the singers mean by that line “you can hang out with all the boys?”

“We understood their point of view,” explained Randy, “and we talked about it before we cut the song. YMCA is a trademark and a trademark needs to be protected. If they allowed one person or one group to violate their rights, that would put YMCA into the public domain. David and I tried to communicate this to our producer but couldn’t get through.”

That was quite understandable – as all the Village People were salaried employees of Jacques Morali — who held total control of the group, their name, its music and its trademarks. Each member also found himself locked into a character with a single visual image. There was no way for The Village People to evolve with the times or change any aspect of what they were — not even their attire. Such, though, is the case with any act set up for a very short rocket ride into the sun.

“When ‘Y.M.C.A.’ became a big hit,” said Randy, “there was a legal decision that those letters remained 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.”

The “Y.M.C.A.” single sold a reported 12 million copies worldwide and spent a full half-year on the charts, peaking in February 1979. 

Upset over his stature as simply a salaried Morali hired hand (and not a profit participant), Victor Willis abruptly quit The Village People in the fall of 1979. His walkout came days before shooting began on their debut (and actually only) motion picture, “Can’t Stop the Music.” Valerie Simpson’s brother Ray was recruited as the act’s new lead singer, but, as critics and fans agreed, he was no Victor Willis.

Randy Hughes also quit, only to be replaced by another imitation cowboy, Jeff Olson. The reorganized Village People then renounced their disco roots and took out full-page ads in the music trades to display their new look and future sound: as Bowiesque glam rockers. After one flop RCA album, 1981’s “Renaissance,” that act of desperation was abandoned.

Meanwhile, Jacques Morali, wealthy beyond his dreams, was living a wild, free-and-easy lifestyle which eventually led to his contracting AIDS. He died a bitter and ailing recluse in 1991 at the age of 44. Four years later, lung cancer forced out Glenn Hughes, who was replaced by Eric Anzalone. Glenn died in 2001 and was buried in his leathers — just as he’d requested.

In 2012, Victor Willis won a landmark ruling in the first case heard regarding the Copyright Act of 1976. It allows artists and writers to reclaim their master recordings and publishing rights from their record companies and music publishers after 35 years. Among the copyrights Victor recaptured: “In The Navy,” “Go West” and “Y.M.C.A.”

Worldwide, The Village People have sold more than 100 million records. A version of the group still tours, playing clubs, county fairs and occasionally popping up on TV. While they remain happy to sing all three of their million-sellers, these days The Village People get their greatest crowd reaction with the song which seemed so cutting edge controversial back in 1978: “Y.M.C.A.”    

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Gary Theroux researched, wrote, programmed and co-produced the legendary 52-hour Billboard award-winning radio rockumentary “The History of Rock ‘n Roll.”  Today, over rewoundradio.com and supernovaradio.co, he hosts it’s 2½ minute feature version, which won the 2014 New York Festivals International Programming Award as “the world’s best online radio series.” © 2015 Pop Record Research.

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