By Ian S. Port
By Tony Ware
By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
Remember the Village People? Those of us over 30 no doubt recall their double-entendre anthems from disco's heyday; younger folks were probably exposed to their costumed capering via the latest '70s revival, maybe even Wayne's World 2. Although they were critically dismissed and reviled by many as a musical anathema, there's no getting around the fact that those dancin' dudes in dopey duds are a pop-culture reference point. With back-to-back megahits courtesy of "Macho Man," "Y.M.C.A.," and "In the Navy," the Village People were a veritable platinum-record factory during their first two years of existence.
How many of us remember Victor Willis, though? From 1977 to 1980, he was a Village Person. And not just some bit player in a campy get-up, either. Willis was lead singer, lyricist, and co-vocal arranger, and helped write some of the group's biggest hits. Willis was the man. In fact, he was alternately the cop and the ship captain, and, as he often says, the only straight member of the group.
Nowadays, the 44-year-old musician is pretty much a Lower Haight fixture, whether he's chowing at Surf Burger, having a nightcap at Dons Different Ducks, or hanging with the neighborhood denizens. Frequently, he holds garage sales in front of the Willis family home on Haight, hawking extension cords, used software, and such (alas, no Village People records), often regaling passers-by with tales of his disco days. He immediately agrees to an interview, although he warns me that he'll have to save his best stuff for the tell-all book he plans to publish one day.
"I mean, some shit in the book is gonna be a motherfucker," Willis says. "Those guys, the gay world, a lot of trips goin' on."
The next afternoon I eventually roust Willis, and after a quick round of beers at Dons, we adjourn to his spacious rental flat. "It was work," Willis reminisces of his Village People stint. "It was hectic. It was fun. It was an experience. It was all the things that doing something you never did before and wanted to do were, including the good, bad, and the ugly."
"I had my front tooth knocked out of my mouth by the Indian accidentally onstage one time," he recalls. "Had to fly back to New York and get a root canal, then fly on to the next city. Did 14 shows in a row, including the live album, with scarlet rheumatic fever. They didn't tell me I had it until after I was doing the live album, 'cause they had an act-of-God contract where they would not get paid if I didn't perform."
Broadway shows like The Wiz and Two Gentlemen of Verona (with Jeff Goldblum) were Willis' forte until he met Village People Svengali Jacques Morali while doing background vocals for a Ritchie Family record.
"He called me in after the second day," Willis says of the French producer, who died of AIDS complications in 1991. "He said he had a dream that I did the lead vocals on this new idea of his, and asked me would I do it. Said he'd pay me a thousand dollars to do four songs, and if they were good, he'd come back and make me a star."
That first record featured the song "San Francisco (You Got Me)," which became a big hit in the U.K. and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. "I hadn't been back to San Francisco in a couple years," says Willis, who grew up the son of a minister at El-Bethel Baptist Church on Golden Gate. "And here this guy was telling me he wanted me to sing a song about San Francisco. I knew something was going to happen. That was 1977, and it still seems like yesterday."
Now that Morali had a hit on his hands, he needed a group, so he proceeded to cobble one together, taking inspiration from the first record's cover art, a group of men dressed in fashions popular with Greenwich Village's gay community at the time. "None of these guys were even close to the group," Willis insists. "I wasn't even on the cover. The Indian [Felipe Rose] was the only one because he was doing the bells or something; the rest of them were from a modeling studio." Willis claims that subsequent Villagers -- not unlike Milli Vanilli -- were better dancers than vocalists. "They couldn't sing, so we had six guys singing their parts. All they were doing was moving their mouths most of the time -- shakin' their butts and movin' their mouths."
The whirlwind that followed was pure pop phenomenon. With a slightly more legitimate "group" assembled, Morali, Willis, executive producer Henri Bolelo, and songwriter Peter Whitehead set to composing and recording the next record, the highly successful Macho Man, to be followed by two worldwide smash singles, "Y.M.C.A." and "In the Navy." The U.S. Navy actually considered using the latter as a recruitment theme until someone, uh, delineated its subtext for officials. Meanwhile, the Village People toured around the world, did scads of TV performances, and in their own skewed, parodic fashion, introduced millions to a hitherto underexposed gay culture.