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Former Village People lead singer angry at Tampa Bay Rays

Victor Willis, shown in a 1979 photo, was the original lead singer of the Village People. He also wrote the lyrics on early hits like YMCA, Macho Man, Go West and In the Navy.

Associated Press

Victor Willis, shown in a 1979 photo, was the original lead singer of the Village People. He also wrote the lyrics on early hits like YMCA, Macho Man, Go West and In the Navy.

ST. PETERSBURG — You may remember him as "the Cop." And he is not happy.

Victor Willis, lyricist, lead singer and costumed police officer for the original Village People, said Thursday in a news release that he planned to sue the Tampa Bay Rays "within the next 30 days," for misappropriating his voice and image.

The Village People — the current version — performed after a Rays game last August.

Willis, who left the group in 1984, certainly would not be coming to the Trop. But promotions for the event included a 1978 video snippet of the original Village People singing YMCA, featuring Willis the Cop front and center.

"His voice is very distinctive. People know that song," said Linda Smythe, Willis' publicist. "They get excited, thinking he is going to be there."

Willis, now 58, is not out for money, Smythe said. YMCA alone earns him more than $1 million a year in songwriting royalties. Every time a stadium or arena blasts YMCA through loudspeakers, he earns a little payment.

But Willis does want people to stop using his image and voice without his permission, she said. "What we would like ideally from the Rays is to ask them to apologize and give us assurances that they won't do that again."

Willis is somewhat of a recluse and usually does not speak publicly on such issues, Smythe said. But his lawyers sent the Rays a cease-and-desist letter Tuesday, she said.

Rays spokesman Michael Kalt declined to comment. The current Village People's business management company, Simuvus, did not return a telephone call.

Willis was performing in the play The Wiz in the late 1970s when he was recruited by two producers to sing lead for a disco group costumed as stereotypical gay fantasy characters.

Other than Willis, most of the men had little singing experience and served mainly as backup dancers. Willis wrote the lyrics on early hits like YMCA, Macho Man, Go West and In the Navy.

Though Village People songs typically included gay double-entendre, nothing ended up more mainstream than YMCA. When the group appeared on American Bandstand in 1978, the audience surprised them by spelling out the YMCA letters with their arms, setting off a rollicking tradition known to sports fans all over the country.

Willis' career stalled after he left the Village People. In 2006, he was sentenced to three years of probation and sent to the Betty Ford Clinic after arrests for cocaine possession and skipped court dates.

Smythe, the publicist, said Willis has kicked his drug problems and is performing concerts again, mainly in Europe. He lives in South Wales with his wife.

The current Village People performing group includes three original members: the Indian, the Soldier and the Construction Worker. The Cop, Biker and Cowboy are new.

In a 2008, they set a Guinness World Records mark for the largest YMCA dance, with 40,178 fans at the Brut Sun Bowl.

The Village People paid Willis royalties for the words he wrote, but — just like the Rays — the Sun Bowl used clips from the original Village People in promotional material, prompting Willis to sue and win a settlement, Smythe said.

He also won a monetary settlement from Hallmark, she said, after it used YMCA and Macho Man in sound cards, dubbing in a singer who sounded like Willis.

Last year, he sued over a cartoon. The Cleveland Show aired an episode that showed Village People-like characters piling on top of each other. The Cop, dressed in underpants, yells "Dog pile," and jumps on.

Willis found that offensive, Smythe said. He is heterosexual, she said, and was once married to Phylicia Rashad, who played the wife on television's The Cosby Show.

Willis is still negotiating with Fox over the Cleveland episode, Smythe said, and has asked the network not to re-air it.

Former Village People lead singer angry at Tampa Bay Rays 08/11/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 11, 2011 9:37pm]
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