On the Beat

Village People scored hits years ago, but the original Cowboy is now climbing the charts

Randy Jones, the original cowboy in the Village People waves to the crowd on Ninth Street in Durham, N.C. Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014.
Randy Jones, the original cowboy in the Village People waves to the crowd on Ninth Street in Durham, N.C. Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. cliddy@newsobserver.com

At the end of 1979, Jimmy Carter was still president. A gallon of gas could be had for 65 cents. And Village People, the disco group featuring Raleigh native Randy Jones, appeared on the Billboard pop charts for the last time with the ironically titled single “Ready for the 80’s.”

Close to 38 years later, Jones – the cowboy from the Village People – is back on a Billboard chart for the first time as a solo act. His current single “Hard Times” is on Billboard’s dance chart, peaking (so far) at No. 42.

“It’s a big deal for me,” Jones enthused over the phone from New York. “Forty years after first hitting the charts with Village People, I’m on there again as a solo artist – the first and only original member of the Village People to do so – and it’s people like Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson who have done that before.”

Raleigh native Randy Jones, the original Village People cowboy, is back on a Billboard chart for the first time – as a solo act.

“Hard Times” is part of a full-length album, “Still Makin’ Noise,” coming out this fall. Two videos are being made for “Hard Times,” to debut on Sept. 13 – Jones’ 65th birthday.

“The way music is so fractured right now into pop and country and whatever, just to get any kind of recognition is revitalizing,” he said. “It’s my fifth decade of show-biz, which sounds weird coming out of my mouth and resounding in my ear-pans.

“I’m just walking through this life depending on the kindness of strangers and a shaded lightbulb.”

Jones still gets back to North Carolina to visit family, and also performs regular benefit shows for Meals on Wheels and (of course) the YMCA. He also keeps busy with acting, primarily in horror films like the upcoming “The Rack Pack” and 2014’s “Tales of Poe.”

“I get murdered, burned up and come back a monster in that one, which was great,” he said. “I was raised up on horror films and have always loved them. So whenever I get the opportunity to do sci-fi or mystery or horror, I jump at it.”

Village People File
The Village People. Raleigh native Randy Jones, far left, is the original Cowboy. KRT

Here is a profile of Jones that appeared in The News & Observer Aug. 7, 2005.

The Cowboy Way

By David Menconi

PINE KNOLL SHORES – Randy Jones surveys his domain from a patio table outside the Aruba Suite at the Royal Pavilion Resort. He’s dressed tourist-incognito – sunglasses, khaki shorts and T-shirt, flip-flops – and nobody pays any mind to the guy who looks like a young Robert Goulet.

But it wouldn’t take much for a commotion to break out. About all Jones would have to do is put on a cowboy hat, hoist his hands in the air and start chanting his old signature hit with the Village People, “Y.M.C.A.”

“If I went over there right now, any kid there would know ‘Y.M.C.A.,’ ” he says, nodding toward the pool. “The first night we were down here, we were in the bar after dinner. Someone from the hotel came from a wedding reception down the hall and said, ‘The deejay is about to play “Y.M.C.A.” Would you come teach the bride and groom the dance?’ ‘Sure!’ The happiest day of their lives, something they’ll always remember, I’m glad to be a part of that. I enjoy it every single time.

“I’m a lucky dog,” he concludes with a grin, “to have gotten so much sunshine on my ass.”

Indeed. It has been 14 years since Jones, a Raleigh native, was in the Village People, and more than a quarter-century since the group peaked with “Y.M.C.A.,” “Macho Man,” “In the Navy” and other frothy disco confections.

Yet scarcely a day goes by that you don’t hear one of those songs in a movie trailer or at the ballpark. For a group that seemed utterly disposable, the Village People proved surprisingly enduring.

So has Jones, the Village People’s original cowboy and a man who knows how to enjoy the perks of celebrity and a music catalog that still generates a tidy sum. He lives in New York City but gets to North Carolina a few times a year to visit his mother, who lives in Morehead City. (His father died last year.)

Not everyone from the Village People orbit is doing so well. Original biker Glenn Hughes died of lung cancer four years ago, and original “Hot Cop” Victor Willis was arrested last month in California on drug and gun charges.

“Poor Victor,” Jones says with a sigh. “I thought he’d gotten it back together. He was driving a Corvette when he got arrested, so I guess the royalty checks were still coming. That’s the good thing and the bad thing about mailbox money: You can go the crackhead way or do something else.”

The Village People are still together with three original members, plus a fourth (Ray Simpson, Willis’ “Hot Cop” replacement) who has been in the band since 1979. Jones spends most of his time acting in low-budget films – “Three Long Years,” “A Tale About Bootlegging,” “Beach Blanket Bloodbath.” His white T-shirt is emblazoned with the title of his latest single, “New York City Boy,” and he’s putting out a solo album called “Midnight Cowboy” later this year.

But the Village People remain Jones’ calling card. He gets plenty of mileage out of it, turning up at the Kentucky Derby, Yankee Stadium and George W. Bush’s inauguration this year alone. Name just about any celebrity of a certain age, from Dolly Parton to Dick Clark, and chances are that Jones has crossed his path. In June, Jones was presented with an “Outmusic Special Recognition Award” in Chicago, where he sang a duet with another 1970s icon, Debby Boone.

“She’s a good friend,” Jones says. “Although I’d not seen her in 25 years. But we both still look good!”

‘Always so artistic’

Born in 1952, Jones grew up in the Lion’s Park neighborhood downtown and attended Enloe High School, where he ruled the local drama clique. Longtime friend Kathy Gelb remembers an Enloe production of “Camelot” starring Jones and Bill Campbell, who went on to be mayor of Atlanta.

“I was just in the chorus, but my sister was Guenevere and Randy was King Arthur, of course,” Gelb says. “He was always so artistic and creative. He designed all the sets, too. He was always president of the drama club, the all-A honor student, involved in student government and everything else.”

After graduating from Enloe in 1970, Jones studied theater at UNC-Chapel Hill and the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. He also joined the Agnes DeMille Theater company, earning an Equity card and enough money from a “Carousel” tour to move to New York City in 1975. He has lived there ever since.

“I was able to sublet an apartment from a company member,” Jones says. “I was in two unions and I had some money saved, so I was pretty confident. But I still remember my dad saying, ‘Son, always remember that you’ve got a home to come back to if you don’t make it.’ 

That wouldn’t be necessary. Jones lived the performer’s life, modeling and acting and dancing. He also became friendly with dance club singer Grace Jones about the time of her first album, 1977’s “Portfolio.”

“Grace got me and this other guy to put together a live show for her album,” Jones says. “Before, you’d always hear music played in discos, but it was faceless. Nobody knew who the acts were. Grace started to change that. We had the music on reel-to-reel tape, and we’d sing live, carry her onstage in a sedan chair, the whole thing.

“That’s where a producer who was trying to create the Village People saw me. ‘We like the way you look,’ he said. ‘Can you sing? Dance? Act?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ Always say ‘yes’ to questions like that until they discover you can’t, because first impressions help how you’re perceived in all your other abilities and whether or not you’re the right fit.”

Having played a rodeo cowboy in a Big Red chewing gum commercial, Jones had “this Tom Selleck Marlboro man look.” He was perfect for the Village People cowboy – alongside the cop, construction worker, Native American, sailor and leather-clad biker.

Less than a week after auditioning, Jones was in the recording studio. At first, it seemed like just another job – something to give him the four weeks of employment he needed that year to qualify for 26 weeks of unemployment compensation.

“I thought, ‘OK, if this lasts a month, I can coast for a while,’ ” Jones says, then laughs. “And it never ended.”

‘Walking a fine line’

By 1978, disco ruled, and the Village People were riding the wave. Jones was about the biggest thing to come out of Raleigh since N.C. State basketball star David Thompson. The fame extended to the rest of his family.

“I drove a school bus for three years when I was at Enloe,” says Diane Jenkins, Jones’ sister, who lives in Raleigh. “Elementary school kids used to ask for my autograph, too.”

Gelb remembers turning on her television and watching in disbelief as the Village People performed on an aircraft carrier.

“Randy would call from different cities and say things like, ‘You won’t believe this, but I just went roller-skating with Cher!’ ” she says. “And I could only say, ‘Yeah, you’re right –I don’t believe you.’ 

For all its popularity, disco became the most actively protested music since the Beatles. Sometimes, the opposition turned violent. A 1979 “Disco Demolition Night” between games at a Chicago White Sox double-header exploded into a riot and trashed the field so badly that the second game was canceled.

The Village People commanded even less respect than disco itself. In his exhaustive new book “Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco,” critic Peter Shapiro dismisses the group out of hand: “[I]f disco had a nadir it was unquestionably the Village People. The Village People represented everything uncool about disco.”

But Shapiro gives the Village People credit for subversiveness as a group of gay archetypes who conquered Middle America without Middle America ever catching on. Cathy Crimmins, author of “How the Homosexuals Saved Civilization,” cites this as the Village People’s great achievement.

“In a weird way, the Village People appealed to the decadent innocence of the 1970s, when so many people were experimenting with sex and drugs and rock and roll,” Crimmins says in an interview. “They’re quintessentially American, I think – but a parody of America, co-opting all this imagery. Their costumes were sort of cleaned-up, gentrified versions of stereotypical costuming you’d see in gay clubs. There was some posturing, but it wasn’t threatening.

“They were vaguely gay, but kind of wholesome. Like a Halloween show.”

For their part, the Village People themselves downplayed issues of sexual orientation. Jones notes that the group’s best-known lyrics were written by original cop Willis – “a 100-percent blazing heterosexual.”

“We didn’t think we were putting anything over on anyone as much as walking a fine line – pushing the envelope, trying to be as close to the edge as possible without offending anyone,” Jones says. “We wanted to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

“People misquote lyrics all the time to try to support the argument that they’re ‘gay’ songs. But phrases like ‘hang out with all the boys’ – well, you can hang out with the guys, sure. If you’re looking at it from a gay perspective, you’re going to see it from a gay perspective. Everybody in the group is not gay, but we definitely have that association. It didn’t bother us. We tried to walk that fine line, keeping our personal lives separate.”

‘A place for the group’

Late in 1979, the Village People made their final appearance on the U.S. pop singles chart with a song called “Ready for the 80’s.” But as good as the late ’70s were to the Village People, the 1980s were brutal.

The slip began with the 1980 biopic “Can’t Stop the Music.” The movie flopped. Even the soundtrack bombed, the first Village People album to fall short of gold (500,000 in sales).

With disco’s popularity eroding, the group’s management decided an image change was in order. The iconic Village People costumes went out in favor of a “new romantic” look along the lines of Culture Club, Duran Duran and other emerging new-wave acts.

“It was absolutely disrespectful to our fans,” Jones says. “Like slapping the millions of people who had bought our product: ‘Hey, you are so stupid to have bought these images the past three years and we respect you so little that we’re going to change all that and stuff new ones down your throat.’ It was a bad move, and I wanted no part of it.”

Jones made his exit, and the image change failed as he predicted. A 1981 album optimistically titled “Renaissance” sank without a trace, and the group fell apart. The only Village Person who found a high-profile music gig outside the group was Ray Simpson – singing background vocals behind his sister, Valerie Simpson, in the R&B duo Ashford & Simpson.

Jones kept his cowboy hat on and recorded a few solo projects, including a cover of Roy Orbison’s 1964 hit “Oh, Pretty Woman.” For backup vocals, he enlisted a friend named Dan Hartman, formerly of the Edgar Winter Group. Hartman returned the favor when he came to Jones with a song called “Living in America,” which he’d written for the 1985 movie “Rocky IV.”

“He told me, ‘James Brown is going to sing this, but I want to give him a demo that sounds like a Village People song,’ ” Jones says. “So we went into a studio and did it up like a Village People song. And in the movie, it does sound like a Village People song. Dan had also said, ‘A lot of guys out there are copping your style, the rhythms, background vocals and things.’ I was listening to radio in New York at about the same time, and they were playing disco – but calling it ‘dance music’ to protect the innocent.”

Obviously, the time was ripe for a reunion. The Village People re-formed to great success and continue to tour. But Jones bowed out in 1991. It was too much like the Greek legend of Sisyphus, he says, pushing a stone up the mountain, only to have it roll down.

“Now, I’m in and out of New York with musicals,” Jones says. “I have a wonderful life with my partner, and I just enjoy myself. I enjoy not being on the road anymore, but I’m glad they are because it keeps the whole thing alive and it keeps those CDs selling. I knew there was still a deep, prevalent, pervasive audience for Village People. The pop achievements we had in the ’70s were ongoing. There will always be a place for the group in pop culture.”

‘Four-letter secret weapon’

Recent events support Jones’ point. Village People songs have been a constant presence in movies and on television, from “The Love Boat” in 1977 to “Wayne’s World 2” in 1993, “Dumb and Dumber” in 2003 and “Soul Plane” in 2004. And somewhere along the way, “Y.M.C.A.” became a standard for the seventh-inning stretch at ballparks all over the country.

Jones says the group can’t take credit for the song’s goofy letter dance. It happened spontaneously when the Village People debuted “Y.M.C.A.” on “Dick Clark’s American Bandstand” in 1978.

“We were flying up from South America for the show, and we worked on the choreography on the plane,” Jones says. “Mostly hand claps, turning, marching in place.

“The audience at this particular taping was a bunch of kids bused in from a cheerleader camp. The first time we got to the chorus, we were clapping our hands above our heads. And the kids in the audience, I guess from their cheerleading experience, when they saw us clapping, they thought it looked like we were making a ‘Y.’ So they automatically did the letters. We saw this, and by the next verse, we were doing letters with them. It was purely audience-generated, which is probably why it’s still so popular.”

Twenty-six years after it peaked at No. 2 on the charts, “Y.M.C.A.” still gets Jones invited to unusual places. Shortly before his North Carolina beach vacation, Jones led the crowd at a New York Yankees game on the “Y.M.C.A.” dance. And late last year, he got his most surprising invitation to date: President Bush’s second-term inaugural ball.

“I thought they’d sent it to the wrong person,” he says. “But I told them I’d do it for two $2,500-a-plate tickets for my mother and sister. My mother, who is very active in the local Republican party, was thrilled. Tony Orlando was there, Lesley Gore, the Oak Ridge Boys. I was flattered. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I met both George Bush and Colin Powell.

“And I got a coin out of it,” he adds, pulling his key ring out of his pocket and laying it on the patio table.

His key ring has a faux-sheriff’s badge with the word “STAR” stamped on it, plus a wartime tchotchke – a medallion with a map of Iraq on it. “Mission accomplished,” reads one side. “Our cause is just,” reads the other.

One has to ask: Did Jones vote for Bush?

“Oh, no,” he says. “But it was my way of showing who was more compassionate. I did a medley of the ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ theme, ‘Macho Man’ and ‘Y.M.C.A.’ On the chorus, a couple thousand Republicans were making the letters Y-M-C-A. So I accomplished my goal without having to demonstrate.”

Jones chuckles as he pockets his keys.

“Yeah, I’ve got a four-letter secret weapon I carry in my pocket at all times,” he concludes. “And it’s called ‘Y.M.C.A.’”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi