Court victory for ex-Village People lead singer

Associated Press Modified: May 9, 2012 at 9:01 pm •  Published: May 9, 2012
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — When it comes to compiling a list of the great songwriters of the past 50 years, Victor Willis' name likely wouldn't merit more than an asterisk.

Far better known as the cop in the novelty disco act the Village People, Willis is also remembered for a number of drug-related troubles in the early 2000s that nearly up-ended his post-Village People days.

Yet there he was this week, being mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, after he won a court battle to claim at least a third of the copyrights for such songs as "Macho Man," ''Y.M.C.A." and "In the Navy" that he co-wrote for his old group.

The former "Macho Man," who says he has a new album titled "Solo Man" coming out in a few weeks, declined to say what kind of payday he expects Monday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Barry Moskowitz to bring him.

"But those songs, they gross millions a year, so it could be a significant thing," he noted with a chuckle.

Willis was a musician-actor who, among other things, had appeared on Broadway in "The Wiz" when Jacques Moreli decided to cash in on the disco craze in 1977 by putting together a group made up of beefy, macho-looking guys dressed as a biker, a construction worker, a cop, a cowboy and an Indian chief.

Willis, who was the group's lead singer, was soon dancing up a storm with his cohorts to catchy beats while disco balls glittered and music blared around the country and in Europe.

The Village People sold tens of millions of records in the 1970s, and Willis co-wrote all the big hits. But he also signed away his copyrights to the songs for a cut of the profits that today ranges from 12 to 20 percent.

"I was very young and naive," he said by phone from New York on Thursday. "I didn't know at that point what I was going to be giving away. So If they put a contract in front of me, I signed it."

He said he suspects many other young artists did as well, and he hopes his court victory this week will eventually benefit them, too.

When Congress updated federal copyright law in 1978, it allowed songwriters to reclaim such signed-away copyrights after 35 years. That's something that over time is expected to affect the rights to songs by Dylan, Springsteen, Tom Petty, Billy Joel and others.