What did Calgary Cares, Stagewest, and the Calgary Stampede Grandstand show all have in common this year? They all paid homage to the legendary 1970’s disco group, Village People. Going back over the recent years, you’ll find even more occurrences of this phenomenon – for instance, the Beer-Garden show at 2007 Edmonton Pride concluded with a tribute performance to the group. It’s irrefutable that Village People left a lasting impression on North American culture in general, though gay men often claim the group as property of their own community.
“When you’re friendly, everybody likes it. We’re gay-friendly, black-friendly, Hispanic-friendly, family friendly – we’re a very friendly group. …I think early on there was a little resistance because of the gay image thing, but that’s come and gone,” said Jeff Olson, who currently plays the Cowboy role. In anticipation of the Village People’s upcoming Calgary performance, GayCalgary and Edmonton Magazine recently caught up with him for a one-on-one interview.
“If people enjoy your show, it doesn’t matter who they are or what they stand for,” said Olson, when asked about the differences between their gay and straight fan base. “We embrace all people who enjoy music. It is true that the gay community was very supportive of this group from the get-go and there was a big reason why. The group catered to the gay community because disco in the very beginning years was catered to the black-clubs, the Hispanic-clubs - the sub-culture clubs… It’s what our producers did deliberately, was cater to the gay clubs, and we did well.”
Although New York born Olson wasn’t part of the group at the time of its formation, he knows very well about its origin and how the celebrated set of costumes were selected. Interestingly, not all roles were occupied from the very beginning.
“When the group started out, the producer found Felipe the Indian dancing in his full Indian regalia in a club, and he thought that he was going to put together a group of stereotypical American male images. If you take a look at the Macho Man album there was only two missing, and the group filled in the rest of the characters later. We auditioned for these characters.”
Indeed, the roles in this group have been filled by a number of different people over the years. Olson took on the Cowboy role after Randy Jones left in 1980. Leatherman Glenn Hughes died from lung cancer in 2001, but was replaced in 1995 by the current Eric Anzalone. However, original members Felipe Rose (the Indian), David Hodo (the Construction Worker), and Alex Briley (the Military Man) have endured.
It is said that, sadly, the group’s popularity petered out after 1979, and many of their albums after that time received little attention with notable exceptions of the songs Can’t Stop the Music and Sex on the Phone.
Thirty years after YMCA was released, it is still incredibly popular in the clubs, at dances and special events like weddings and parties. We asked Olsen what he attributes to the lasting appeal of this and other Village People hits.
“Well, [YMCA] is a catchy tune. You can have a successful song without a hook, but it’s got a hook just like Macho Man and In the Navy. It was also a period piece – a lot of people hear this song and they equate it with a piece of their history. And it’s just plainly senseless,” he jokes. “It’s true…I mean a lot of disco music was just plainly senseless. Some of the songs have a lot of emotion, but it’s about – let’s go out, let’s have fun, great beat…and also, all these songs thanks to our horn director, had some great horn instrumentation on all the albums.”
Within the last 5 years, Village People performed as the opening act for Cher on her Farewell tour. Olsen says the experience was exhausting but well worthwhile.
“It nearly killed us, out on the road for so long,” he laughs. “I thought she was going to retire in six months, but it was like 2 years. It took forever for her to retire and now she’s back in Vegas and she’s using Christopher – he’s the guy who mimics the village people with a couple of sticks. He’s very good actually, and very funny, but now she’s using him as an opening act instead of the original village people! But it was a great great tour, we wished it would have gone on forever – but how long can you retire for?”
Speaking about Cher dredged up an interesting piece of news.
“Actually, we’re hoping that Cher is going to be one of the speakers at our Hollywood walk of fame star presentation – we’re getting a star!” he informed us. Olsen is not sure of the exact date the ceremony is scheduled to happen, but believes it to be sometime in September of this year.
On August 8th, Calgarians have a rare chance to see the still-touring group perform some of their classic numbers at the Deerfoot Inn and Casino. Tickets will run you $49, and are available through Ticketmaster. GayCalgary and Edmonton Magazine is also hosting a ticket giveaway draw (visit www.gaycalgary.com for details) – but be quick!
“We’re really excited about getting out to Calgary – we’ve spent so much time in Canada over the last two years. …Come party with us! We love what we do, we’ve loved it for 31-some-odd years – it’s going to be fun…eh?”
Enter to win free tickets for two – visit www.gaycalgary.com for details.
Coming to Deerfoot Inn and Casino
August 8th, 2008 @ 9:00pm
1000, 11500 35th Street SE
On sale through Ticketmaster