THE VILLAGE PEOPLE
WITH SPECIAL GUESTS DINA MARTINA AND DJ EL TORO (A.K.A. KURT B. REIGHLEY)
Showbox, 1426 First, 728-6033 (Fastixx), $30
8 p.m. Thurs., June 27
The first time Felipe Rose met Village People producer Jacques Morali, he laughed at him.
Rose, a.k.a. The Indian, was a dancer at the Anvil, one of the "most notorious" gay clubs in N.Y.C. Having spied the half-Puerto Rican, half-Sioux parading through Greenwich Village in his uniform—feathers, loincloth, and foot bells—the 29-year-old Morali cornered him and decreed his plan to make Rose a star.
"I thought he was like anybody else in a club: high, and talking shit," recalls Rose. Finally, after several months, a DJ corroborated the pesky suitor's story: Morali had already helped the Ritchie Family score two hits. Rose began to take the petite Frenchman more seriously.
His incredulity is understandable. Even in more professional surroundings, Morali's idea for a pop act sounded ridiculous. Inspired by the rugged fantasy looks adopted by urban gays, Morali envisioned a group featuring nothing but American masculine stereotypes: The Cop, The G.I. . . . and The Indian.
When Morali and partner Henri Belolo signed the Village People to Casablanca Records (home of Donna Summer) in 1976, they were peddling a concept, not a band. Although the cover of 1977's Village People features models dressed as a Leatherman, a Cowboy, and a Construction Worker, those roles wouldn't be filled (by Glenn Hughes, Randy Jones, and David Hodo, respectively) until later, when live dates demanded regulars. In the beginning, there was just Rose, lead singer Victor Willis (a Broadway vet from The Wiz), and Willis' friend Alex Briley, who became The G.I.
Village People cuts like "San Francisco" and "Fire Island" were obviously aimed at the gay community. But once audiences witnessed the group's theatrical live show, it didn't take long for middle America to fall for Morali's six-pack of butch fantasies. For two years, "the producers" (as the band call them), assisted by Willis, churned out double entendre-filled hits that gave a wink to the homos yet were essentially goofy party songs. So complete was their crossover that in 1979 the U.S. military considered using "In the Navy" as a recruiting jingle. The whole country was singing, dancing, and laughing with the Village People.
The producers wanted more and, with Grease mastermind Allan Carr, concocted a celluloid vehicle for the band. "When David Hodo first read the script, he said, 'This piece of shit stinks!'" laughs Rose. But the band acquiesced, and production began on Can't Stop the Music.
But first, there was another pressing concern: replacing Willis. "He had wanted it to be Victor Willis and the Village People," says Rose. "Abusing himself with 'party favors' didn't help either." Willis turned his badge over to Ray Simpson, brother of Valerie Simpson (of Ashford and Simpson fame). Ray stepped in just in time to star in one of Hollywood's most notorious bombs.
Twenty-two years later, Can't Stop the Music is a campy slice of disco history; the production numbers—particularly a "Y.M.C.A." evoking Busby Berkeley after a gay-porn bender—are a hoot. But America reviled it. People were laughing at, not with, the Village People.
"They were burning records in Comiskey Park, shouting 'disco is dead!'" says Rose. "Today, they play 'Y.M.C.A.' at Comiskey Park."
Randy Jones was the next out. The producers recruited former model Jeff Olson, but before Cowboy No. 2 could make his debut, Morali changed the band's image. Drastically. Instead of a Stetson and spurs, Olson wound up on the cover of 1982's rock mishap Renaissance in New Romantic makeup, complete with gold tassels in his hair. The album tanked. The group soldiered on until 1985, when they went on indefinite hiatus.
But it's hard to keep a "Macho Man" down. When Rose turned up at acting auditions, casting directors always got excited. "They kept saying, 'You guys should get back together,'" he says. In 1987, they did. Jones was back in as the Cowboy, albeit briefly. "It didn't take long before the others realized that the same reasons for which Randy was released back in 1980 still existed," says Olson cryptically.
The group formed its own production company, Sixuvus; today they only deal with their old producers (Morali died of AIDS in 1991) for licensing agreements. Having shown the prescience during the height of their '70s fame to ensure they received decent royalties—a rarity among prefab acts—they now assumed complete control of their careers and began playing gigs again.
In 1995, California metal band vet Eric Anzalone was looking for work. He stumbled across a musicians-wanted ad: "Well-known pop/disco group seeking singer who has passport."
"If they're asking if I have a passport, they must be working," he thought. Anzalone submitted a photo and tape. A month later, he got a callback. He was about to become the new Leatherman.
Glenn Hughes wasn't out of the band, per se. He just wasn't up to the demanding tour schedule anymore. "We knew Glenn was sick, but he didn't want to retire," says Rose. So Hughes remained part of Sixuvus—complete with salary, pension plan, and health benefits—and helped run the business . . . including grooming his replacement.
"I affectionately called him my Sleaze Coach," chuckles Anzalone. "After we'd rehearse a number, he'd always go, 'Eric, stop! You're not moving your hips enough!'"
Anzalone, who is married and has a young daughter, says he had no trouble stepping into the chaps of one of history's most recognizable gay icons, although occasionally there are awkward run-ins with aging gents who mistakenly claim they "dated" him back in the day. Glenn Hughes died of lung cancer on March 4, 2001. Anzalone attended the funeral with the rest of the band.
The Village People play approximately 70 shows a year, everything from Australia's Gay Mardi Gras to post-hockey game sets. Fans from their heyday turn up with nieces and nephews; young queers bring their parents. "We're like a Disney attraction," chuckles Rose. Truth is, they always were; today, they're just less risqu鮠Rose substituted buckskin pants for the loincloth years ago: "I don't like showing off my cookies like I used to."
"The gravy train is still going down the tracks, so why should I get off?" concludes Rose. "They could literally throw blindfolds on us, and we could get up on stage, find the microphones, and do the turns." And make a roomful of fans form the letters Y-M-C-A with their arms. The Village People have had the last laugh.