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.
And on April 28, 1978, Willis began a six-year marriage to one Phylicia Allen, who would later remarry football great Ahmad Rashad and star as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show. Honest. “I took her around the world with me,” he says of his ex-wife. “She opened the Village People's act for a while.” Was she a good singer? “Alright, nothing hot.”
I ask Willis if it's true that he was the only breeder in the Village People: “Far as I know, I was. See, I never been in a bedroom with any of 'em, so I really don't know if they were straight or gay. According to them, they were gay.” Willis says he doesn't like people assuming he's homo by association. “People still say stupid stuff to me. I've had to break a lot of jaws and shit. … Gays don't bother me, though. I see gay people every fuckin' where. It's a gay fuckin' world, that's the way I look at it.”
Willis was asked to leave the group for “financial reasons” in 1980, during recording of the soundtrack for the filmic flop Can't Stop the Music. He was replaced by Ray Simpson, brother of Ashford & Simpson's Valerie Simpson. Which is probably just as well for Willis, considering the group's free-fall popularity plummet shortly thereafter (anyone remember their brief New Romantic 1981 “comeback”?). For Willis, the novelty had worn off anyway.
“It became a job,” he says of the ensemble's later days. “They'd tell me I had to go to Paris, I'd be cursin'. I'd be wantin' to stay home, that's all I wanted to do after a while. Maybe that's why I stay in the house so much now. You get to where you appreciate the house and home.”
Willis saw the Village People once after his exit, at the Stone on Broadway. “I went up onstage for a second,” he says. “They were all right. I heard one of [the originals] died. I don't know for sure. The only one I haven't seen with them is Randy, the cowboy. Might've been Randy.”
Willis kicked around New York for about a decade, doing miscellaneous writing and recording projects, including a cover of Olivia Newton John's “Physical” in the mid-'80s. A few years ago, he returned to San Francisco, where he has since dabbled in songwriting. The last time he performed was at the Kennel Club a couple years back. Unfortunately, he says he also spent 200 days in San Bruno Jail, pending a sexual assault charge that was eventually cleared.
“It wasn't that bad, in its own way. I was in the dormitory area, where the VCR is, them treatin' me real comfy and me eatin' ice cream and smokin' cigarettes. Eatin' steaks and shit. It wasn't like a concentration camp in the German war.”
Lucky for Willis, Village People anthologies still sell well, the songs are retro compilation mainstays, and the Pet Shop Boys had a big hit recently with the group's “Go West.” With co-writer credit on all of the VP's biggest hits, Willis isn't going to see his cash cow keel over any time soon. “My royalties just increased 200, 300 percent,” he raves. “I live off of them. Shit, I get what some people get in a year in one fucking statement.”
As our interview comes to a close, Willis treats me to some of his more recent work. First, he croons the chorus to a smoky, heart-wrenching ballad titled “Just Because.” And whaddya know, the guy really can sing. Then he busts out some rather impressive “structured jams” on his recently acquired Roland E-16 keyboard, despite a finger cast on his left hand, the result of a bicycling mishap on Haight Street.
“I've got albums and stuff backed up,” he tells me. “I never even tried to put nothin' out. I recorded at Fantasy about three years ago. But all my stuff seems to be kinda headed to shit, though, ya know?”
Before I leave, I have to admit to the man behind the music that I, a metalheaded suburban kid in the late '70s, wasn't much of a disco fan when the Village People were at their height. “That's OK,” Willis laughs. “I didn't like it either.”
A reconstituted Village People plays Fri, Sept. 8, at the Galleria Design Center in S.F. (Victor Willis will not be performing); call 776-1999.