The Origins of “Y.M.C.A.”
Jacques Moralicame, a French composer-producer, visited the United States as the winner of a 20th Century Fox tagline contest. Captivated by the effervescent sound of disco, he quickly found himself working as a co-producer with the Ritchie Family of Philadelphia (“Brazil,” 1975; “The Best Disco in Town,” 1976).
While in New York, Jacques attended a costume party at Les Mouches, a homosexual bar in Greenwich Village. As he peered around the room, Morali was charmed by all the outrageous macho male cliches presented by the partygoers. He had an idea: why not put together a bunch of vocalists, each portraying a different homosexual dream figure? That would be something special!
Jacques noticed bartender Felipe Rose, who was dancing like an American Indian with jingle bells on his boots, in the club. Felipe readily consented to become the act’s first iconic character. Morali then engaged Broadway veteran Victor Willis, whom he saw in “The Wiz” onstage. Victor portrayed a cop and a navy captain in addition to singing lead vocals and writing songs. He was the one who recommended that Alexander Briley join the three as a uniformed military soldier. Morari picked “The Village People” as the title since all three of them resided in Greenwich Village.
Bubblegum’s producer, Neil Bogart, learned about the idea and signed the band to his newly created Casablanca label. Bogart had earned a name for himself as the mind behind a series of short-lived groups (The Lemon Pipers, The Ohio Express, etc.) and considered the Village People as simply another in a long line of eccentric one-hit wonders. Indeed, Neil saw practically every artist on the Casablanca roster — from KISS to Donna Summer — as novelty concoctions destined for short stardom. Donna, for example, was signed based on the then-unreleased song “Love to Love You Baby,” which Neil perceived as a one-off fluke hit 45. Summer turned out to be one of the decade’s most productive and durable LP and 45 hitmakers, which surprised Bogart, who had never considered himself a long-running record artist.
The Village People’s self-titled debut album sold over a million copies at gay discos, as planned. Soon after, Morali placed an ad in the music trades stating, “Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance and Have a Moustache.” Three additional Village People were cast after a frenzy of auditions: 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 wearing mirrored sunglasses.
The title song from the second Village People LP, “Macho Man,” became a million-selling hit in the summer of 1978, and the album itself went platinum. The band began traveling, usually with Madonna as their opening act, a young up-and-comer. “Cruisin’,” The Village People’s third album, was released in the fall. Another platinum seller, it included the group’s all-time biggest hit.
“Our energy and everything we did were always really positive,” Randy stated. “We never sang about broken hearts, lost loves, or shattered hopes. We always dealt with positive things, and the YMCA is a really happy environment. I believe people had forgotten about Ys and their wonderful characteristics. For more than a century, they have offered food, housing, and spiritual support to many individuals. They have fantastic physical activities for both children and adults, and it is a really positive organization. That is why we decided to write a song about it.”
Initially, Y authorities were apprehensive. They had no notion who or what The Village People stood for (though they had heard stories). They couldn’t determine if the song was an homage, a rip-off, or a backhanded slap in the face. What did the musicians mean when they said, “you can hang around with all the boys?”
“We understood their point of view, and we discussed it before we recorded the song,” Randy stated. The YMCA is a trademark that must be protected. If they permitted one individual or group to violate their rights, the YMCA would become public property. David and I tried to tell our producer, but we couldn’t get through.”
That was logical given that the Village People were all salaried employees of Jacques Morali, who owned the group, its name, songs, and trademarks. Each member was likewise bound to a specific visual representation as a character. The Village People had no manner of adapting to changing circumstances or modifying any part of their identity, not even their dress. This is true for any act that is headed for a short rocket flight towards the sun.
“When the initials ‘Y.M.C.A.’ became popular, a legal ruling was made that those letters retained the property of the Young Men’s Christian Association,” Randy added. But, by then, the Y had agreed to utilize our song as free advertising, so everything was OK.”
The single “Y.M.C.A.” sold 12 million copies worldwide and remained on the charts for a full half-year, peaking in February 1979.
In the fall of 1979, Victor Willis unexpectedly departed The Village People, disillusioned with his position as a salaried Morali hired hand (rather than a profit participant). His departure came just days before the start of filming on “Can’t Stop the Music,” their first (and only) feature picture. Ray Simpson, Valerie Simpson’s brother, was chosen as the band’s new lead vocalist, but reviewers and fans alike felt that he was no Victor Willis.
Randy Hughes quit as well, and was replaced with another impostor, Jeff Olson. After abandoning their disco roots, the reconstituted Village People launched full-page advertising in the music publications to promote their new style and future sound: as Bowiesque glam rockers. That desperate act was abandoned after one unsuccessful RCA record, “Renaissance,” in 1981.
Meanwhile, Jacques Morali, who was affluent beyond his wildest dreams, led a reckless, careless lifestyle that contributed to his developing AIDS. He died an angry and ill recluse at the age of 44. Glenn Hughes was sacked four years later due to lung cancer, and Eric Anzalone took his place. Glenn died in 2001 and was laid to rest in his leathers, as he had asked.
Victor Willis won a significant judgement in the first case tried under the Copyright Act of 1976 in 2012. It permits artists and authors to retrieve their master recordings and publishing rights from record companies and music publishers after 35 years. Victor regained ownership of the songs “In The Navy,” “Go West,” and “Y.M.C.A.”
Over 100 million albums have been sold globally by The Village People. A version of the band is still travelling, performing at clubs, county fairs, and even on television on occasion. While The Village People are still thrilled to perform all three of their million-sellers, the song that appeared so avant-garde and provocative in 1978 still draws the best reaction from the audience: “Y.M.C.A.”