Two of the disco era’s most enduring musical acts will join forces for a concert that is sure to have audiences dancing in the aisles. The Village People and Gloria Gaynor are teaming up for a performance Jan. 15 at the Keswick Theater.
Gaynor has top billing but we’re betting The Village People are going to steal the show — probably because they’ve been defying expectations since they began.
Formed in 1977 by producer/composer Jacques Morali with partner Henri Belolo, The Village People were conceived as a novelty disco act aimed primarily at gay audiences. The members were given fantasy personas to play on stage, with Victor Willis as the police officer, Felipe Rose as the Native American, Randy Jones as the cowboy, Glenn Hughes as the biker, David Hodo as the construction worker and Alexander Briley as the G.I.
By 1979, despite thinly veiled gayety that included beefcake imagery and suggestive lyrics, the group’s popularity had exploded as it crossed over to mainstream world-wide superstardom, thanks to smash hits “Y.M.C.A.” and “In the Navy.” To date, The Village People have sold over 100 million records worldwide.
We know: DAMN!
By the dawn of the 1980s, things had peaked and wheels had started falling off the disco train. The Village People were popular enough to star in their own major feature film, 1980’s “Can’t Stop the Music,” which by all accounts was a critical and commercial flop. But it remains a popular cult film to this day.
The group soldiered on into the mid-1980s before disbanding in 1985. But by 1987, the group reformed with some original and new members, and continues to perform and appear on stages and television internationally.
These days, The Village People are original members Briley, Hodo and Rose, alongside newer members Raymond Simpson (the cop), Jeff Olson (the cowboy) and Eric Anzalone (the biker).
Hodo talked to PGN about the group’s enduring appeal and status as one of the top-selling acts of the disco era.
PGN: It seems like The Village People are as busy now as they were in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Is that the case? DH: Yeah. But we’re a little more in control of the scheduling. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, it was like the producers didn’t care. It was about sending us anywhere and everywhere. And now we have a little more control over that. We don’t let it get out of hand. But we are fortunately continually working.
PGN: Have you performed on a bill with Gloria Gaynor before? DH: Yes. Gloria opened for us on our national tour in 1977 and we’ve since worked with her. She’s another one who, pardon the pun, survived the disco backlash. She looks like a million bucks. She’s still out there and she works quite often.
PGN: How was it opening for Cher on her farewell tour? DH: It was great! We loved her. She’s a doll. It was first-rate and she couldn’t have been more pleasant.
PGN: Did you think that 30 years after starting out, the group would still be invited to perform in stadiums and arenas all over the world? DH: It’s actually 33 years and no, not at all. They told us when we started out that we have four years of longevity because we were a novelty group and that was usually how it went. It’s like I say, when they call you a flash in the pan, you’re the one that burns the kitchen down.
PGN: What has been the key to the group’s longevity as performers? DH: Our act. Nobody has ever seen a group like this before. We work on it very seriously. It’s very entertaining. It gives people a reason to get up and dance and jump up and down and sing and have fun.
PGN: Is the group full-time for you and the other members or do you have time to work on other projects? DH: Whenever we have time at home we have little projects we do, but this is our main gig.
PGN: At what point in your career did the group members decide they needed more control? DH: When we pulled the group back together in 1987. I had left the group for a while and then the group closed down for 15 months. Then it was reformed in 1987. This time it was by us. The producers let us use the name and the trademark and everything but we were taking care of the business end. We said that we’re not going to let ourselves get run down like it was before.
PGN: When members of the group had to be replaced, was it difficult to find the right people to take their place? DH: It wasn’t difficult to find a new lead singer because we had already been working with Ray. Then when Randy was let go, it was the second time he was fired from the group. The first time he was fired, our producer brought Jeff into the group. Then when we pulled it back together again, it was obvious that Randy wasn’t going to work out so we brought Jeff back into the group. Then Glenn, our leatherman, died in 2001 and we had a swing guy, someone who steps in for one of us if we’re sick or can’t do a show. And he fit in perfectly. He’s been with us the past 15 years. It’s hard to find subs because you can’t promise them a monthly salary and they’re usually theater people. When you need them, they’re working or something. That’s been a bit of a problem, but fortunately there aren’t many times that any of us have to miss a show. We hate to miss a show.
PGN: Disco faced a backlash in the early 1980s, and given the gay iconography of the group, was there ever any backlash against tTe Village People? DH: Luckily we survived that whole thing. It really was the ruination of many wonderful acts. We meet friends from the past that had hit records in the disco era and they’re not working at all at this. Even Donna Summer, one of the greatest voices of our time, was silenced for quite a while. It’s too bad but we managed to get through it.
PGN:Do either the group or the individual members support any LGBT causes or charities? DH: There was a time when we played every AIDS dance-a-thon across the United States. We helped raise millions of dollars. We played every one that was offered to us. So we helped raise money and awareness.
PGN: Do you think the group will record new music in the future? DH: God only knows. We’re not planning on it and the music scene has changed so dramatically. I don’t know. I really couldn’t say. We’ve worked on stuff, but Jacques, who wrote the music, died and it was really his magic touch that created all those hits.
PGN: What has been the highlight of your career? DH: People ask me that and I say the highlight came before I joined the group. A couple months before I joined the group, I got to meet Katharine Hepburn and talked with her twice. During the group, I don’t know. I guess working on the movie, as big a flop as it was. The people involved were a lot of fun and we had a really good time even though we were exhausted. They were a great bunch of people to work with.
PGN: Having been in the group from the beginning, how has the group’s audience changed over the years? DH: It’s funny. We see parents bringing their kids and the parents were kids in the 1970s. And their kids have a ball. We’re lucky. We planted a whole new audience. The kids grew up listening to their parents’ records and they’re curious about this group. I think there’s only one other group that is as strange looking as The Village People and that’s probably Kiss.
The Village People perform with Gloria Gaynor at 8 p.m. Jan. 16 at Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside. For more information, visit www.officialvillagepeople.com or call 215-572-7650.