Victor Willis, center, in his role as the cop with the Village People. Copyright 2019. Courtesy of Harlem West Entertainment.
Victor Willis, Mr. “Y.M.C.A.” himself, has just come upstairs from his home gym in San Diego and grabbed the telephone. Couple miles on the treadmill, pushups, weights. He’s 68, the founder and lead songwriter of the Village People and, until the coronavirus shutdowns, had 50 or 60 shows lined up this year.
“We were booked all through the year, all over the world,” Willis says.
The voice coming down the line is energetic, upbeat. Despite the postponed gigs, he’s in a good place after decades of turmoil. He’s happily married, wealthy and won a landmark copyright case a few years ago to obtain 50% royalties on the Village People hits that he co-wrote, which is all of them. He also regained control of the group’s name and performing rights.
But the cherry on top? “Y.M.C.A.” is a member of this year’s class of the National Recording Registry. That’s right, kids – that infectious stand-up-and-boogie disco classic, complete with a singalong chorus and over-the-top enthusiasm for a single-sex gym and fraternal living facility – is now in the official time capsule of American history.
”I had no idea when we wrote ‘Y.M.C.A.’ that it would become one of the most iconic songs in the world and a fixture at almost every wedding, birthday party, bar mitzvah and sporting event,” goes his official statement.
But where did the song come from? How did a giddy tribute to the Young Men’s Christian Association, a religious non-profit founded in 19th-century London, become one of the most instantly recognizable songs in late 20th-century America?
For this, we need to go to the disco-crazed days of winter 1978-79, specifically to New York City’s nightclub and bar scene. “Saturday Night Fever,” set in Brooklyn, had rocked the world year before. Studio 54 reigned supreme for the city’s celebrities. Donna Summer and the Bee Gees ruled pop music. Manhattan’s Greenwich Village was a hotbed of gay life and fashion.
Willis was a singer in the city’s theater scene. A native of San Francisco, the son of a Baptist preacher, he’d come to the Big Apple in the early ’70s. He didn’t live in the Village but at 63rd and Broadway, in the old Empire Hotel, just a couple of blocks west of Central Park and north of Columbus Circle. This was around 1972. Money was tight.
Over the next few years, he joined the prestigious Negro Ensemble Company and was an original Broadway cast member of “The Wiz,” playing lead roles as an understudy.
By the late ’70s, he agreed to sing lead and background vocals for an unnamed concept band that was the brainchild of Jacques Morali, a French record producer. Morali was gay and loved the flamboyant personalities he’d see at Village nightclubs. He eventually called his project the “Village People,” although Willis was the only person in the group, wasn’t gay and still didn’t live in the Village. (It’s show biz, people!)
Session musicians played on the recordings in lieu of an actual band. But “San Francisco,” one of the first songs, was a club hit. To boost the stage show, Willis and Morali rounded up dancers to play send-ups of the gay New York club scene – the biker, the cowboy, the soldier, the construction worker, the Native American chief. Willis began writing lyrics for new songs, including “Macho Man,” a parody of male sexuality. Morali did the music.
Onstage, Willis played the cop or, sometimes, the Navy officer. Offstage, he’d just married a young actress he’d met while they were both in “The Wiz.” Her name was Phylicia Ayers-Allen. Six years later, after they divorced, she would marry football star Ahmad Rashad, star as Clair Huxtable in “The Cosby Show” and become a pop-culture icon all her own.
But in 1978, Willis and Morali were churning out material for a third album. They needed a hit. Willis found his mind wandering back to his youth.
Growing up in San Francisco, his family’s modest home was just a few blocks from the Buchanan Street Y, in the northern part of the city. Willis and his friends went there to work out, goof around and play in basketball leagues. They had a lot of fun.
He had leaned on the Y again in New York. The West Side Y – 5 West 63rd — was two blocks from his old place at the Empire Hotel.
So he put pen to paper. He imagined a kid, not much different than himself, maybe 20, 21 years old, sitting on the corner of 63rd and Broadway, in front of the Empire. He saw it now from a slightly older perspective, as a guy who could offer advice to a kid like that.
“I imagined somebody coming in town and, you know, maybe having blown all their money or couldn’t afford to go to the five-star hotels,” he says. “They were just sitting there not knowing which way to go with their life. So that was the first line.”
Young man, there’s no need to feel down
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground
I said, young man, cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy
The hard times for a young actor in New York were no joke. Though the song would later be seen as camp gay comedy, he was not intentionally writing double entendres.
“There were times that I felt, you know — the expression was being ‘down and out with the blues.’ And so I would go to the Y to pick myself up. I’d go back home and get ready to get back to my life.”
Thus, in the song taking shape in front of him over the course of a few weeks, he wrote:
Young man, I was once in your shoes
I said I was down and out with the blues
I felt no man cared if I were alive
I felt the whole world was so tight
This thing wasn’t supposed to be a downer, though. This was glitter-ball dance music. And so, remembering his teenage years in San Francisco, he jotted down a simple truth:
It’s fun to stay at the YMCA
It was so much fun, in fact, that he repeated the line. Suddenly, a chorus.
Willis, remembering it now: “I would write one draft and then, when I was on the road, I can’t tell you exactly where, I would right another draft. The final draft that I did I remember was in Vancouver just before going to do a concert.”
Morali added the music. Horace Ott, a music-industry veteran with a long resume of hits, added the horn and string arrangements, giving the song the punchy blasts that heralded the chorus. It was done.
“Y.M.C.A” dropped on Nov. 13, 1978. It blew up in January and February of 1979. But for all we remember it today, it never hit No. 1 – it stayed stuck at No. 2, at first behind “Le Freak,” by Chic, and then was leap-frogged by Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”
That year, seven of the top 10 songs of the year were disco. Two years later, at the end of 1981, none were.
Disco was dead, baby, but “Y.M.C.A.” was just getting started.
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