Singer Seeks Control of ’Village People’ Gay Anthem
The original lead singer for the band The Village People is looking to regain control of 33 songs he helped to write for the group, including "Y.M.C.A.," a sing embraced by the gay community as an anthem, the New York Times reported on Aug. 16.
Victor Willis, 58, has filed for copyright control over "Y.M.C.A." and other compositions starting in 2013, the article said. Willis is acting on a law that allows writers to assert ownership of songs after 35 years. Willis often dressed as a police officer in concerts. The band’s members dressed as a variety of masculine stereotypes, including an American Indian, a cowboy, a military servicemember, a construction worker, and a leather-clad biker.
The band’s string of hits included "Macho Man" and "In the Navy," which were also seen as having gay subtexts. The band was enormously successful during the disco era. Their sales exceeded 100 million records, according to a Wikipedia article.
But the companies that currently control the rights to the band’s music say that Willis worked for them as "a writer for hire," and contend that he does not have grounds to claim "termination rights" in order to gain control over the compositions. Their argument has gone before a court in Los Angeles in what "could be a significant test of copyright law," the Times article said.
"This is going to be an important case because they claim my client was a worker for hire," attorney Brian D. Caplan told the Times. "We are quite confident there will not be finding of work for hire, and that the rationale of such a decision will have implications for many other cases."
Lawyers for the music companies disagree.
"This is totally different, and outside the scope of these termination rights issues," attorney Stewart L. Levy said. "The Village People were a concept group, created by my clients, who picked the people and the costumes. It was probably no different than the Monkees when they started.
"We hired this guy," Levy continued. "He was an employee, we gave them the material and a studio to record in and controlled what was recorded, where, what hours and what they did."
Levy also claimed that in some cases Willis simply adapted "French songs" for the American market.
Caplan rebutted this assertion.
"Victor Willis does not speak French, so he could not have translated anything," Caplan said. "And I dare you to go to Paris and find a Y.M.C.A."
The article noted that "Y.M.C.A." remains the group’s biggest, and most lucrative, hit, appearing everywhere from Hollywood films to sports stadiums. The song was an international hit and has sold more than 10 million copies.
Despite gay culture having assumed that the song celebrates the reputation the Young Men’s Christian Association once had as providing single-gender athletic and housing facilities where gay men could congregate, Willis, who is straight, has said that he was not thinking of gay cruising when he penned the song’s lyrics, but instead was praising the Y.M.C.A. as a place where young African Americans could play basketball and swim.
"That said, Willis has often acknowledged his fondness for double entendre," a Wikipedia article on the song notes.
An Aug. 25, 2010 EDGE article on the Village People noted a recurrence of seemingly gay motifs in the band’s discography. "With strong vocals by lead man Victor Willis and songs about major gay meccas (San Francisco, Hollywood, Fire Island and Greenwich Village), it appeared disco [had] found a gay voice," the EDGE article noted. "The cover to their first album -- a black-and-white photo featuring men with various gay looks popular at that time -- only confirmed" the impression, the article added.
"The group (according to the Village People website) came about when Producer/Composer Jacques Morali and his partner Henri Belolo "found Felipe [Rose] dancing in his Indian costume in a crowd in NY’s Greenwich Village. Felipe’s special visual attraction brought the idea to mind to put together a group of Village icons from various American social groups." Rose then became a member of the group, along with Willis, Ray Simpson, Alexander Briley, Eric Anzalone, Jeff Olson and David Hood.
The group still performs, although many of the original members have departed and been replaced. Willis left the band in 1983 to pursue a solo career. In 2007, he penned a book about the band, and lamented that he thought the gay image had curtailed possible opportunities.
A spokesperson for Willis told the Times that at present the singer receives between $30,000 and $40,000 per year in royalties for his work. If he succeeds in gaining control under the termination rights clause of copyright law, that sum could increase threefold of more. By itself, "Y.M.C.A." pulls in more than $1 million per year for those who control the rights, and two other songs, "In the Navy" and "Go West" earn that much cumulatively.