Under the direction of disco producer Jacques Morali, this campy vocal group had massive late-’70’s pop hits with double-entendre-filled songs like “Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A.” In 1977 Morali, with business partners Henri Belolo and Peter Whitehead and lyricist Paul Hurtt, composed self-consciously gay-themed disco songs like “Fire Island” and “San Francisco.” With actor/singer Victor Willis handling vocals, the music wowed both gay and straight club audiences. Backed by Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart, Morali formed a group of singer/actors dressed as a cross section of gay stereotypes: a beefy biker, a construction worker, a policeman, an Indian chief, and a cowboy. As Tom Smucker wrote, they “were gay goofs to those who got the joke, and disco novelties to those who didn’t.”
With major hits like “Macho Man” (#25) in 1978 and “Y.M.C.A” (#2) in 1979, the Village People scored six gold and four platinum records, sold out major concert halls, and appeared on numerous television talk shows. During their first burst of stardom, they reportedly sold over 20 million singles and 18 million albums worldwide. In 1979 Ray Simpson, Valerie Simpson’s brother, replaces Willis. By then, however, the group’s 15 minutes appeared to have ended. For their 1981 release Renaissance, the Village People briefly traded in their old costumes for a fling with a New Romantic wardrobe. They returned to their original style for the foreign-released Fox in the Box.
Through the ’80’s the Village People were all but forgotten in the U.S., but the group maintained a large international following and performed elsewhere. After 1985’s “Sex on the Phone” flopped in America and barely cracked the Top 60 in the U.K. (where “Y.M.C.A.” reigned as one of that nation’s top 25 best-selling records of all time), the act went on hiatus. In the late ’80’s, Miles Jay, a latter-day Villager, enjoyed minor success as a solo R&B artist. The group proper resurfaced in the ’90’s featuring Simpson, four original members, and singer Jeff Olson. They now controlled their own careers and toured extensively. Morali died on December 15, 1991, of AIDS-related causes. He was 44. In 1995 ex-heavy metal singer-Eric Anzalone became the new Leatherman character, replacing Hughes, who remained involved in the act’s business affairs. Hughes, 50, died in 2001 after a long illness and was buried in his biker uniform.