Henri Belolo, a creator of the Village People, the disco group that found mainstream success by performing campy songs like “Y.M.C.A.” while attired as macho archetypes, died Aug. 3 at his home in Paris. He was 82.
His son Jonathan said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Belolo had been a music producer and executive in Morocco and France in 1977 when one night he and composer Jacques Morali, his business partner, were at the Anvil, an after-hours gay nightclub in the West Village of Manhattan. They noticed a bartender who doubled as a dancer wearing a headdress and loincloth.
As they watched, the man, Felipe Rose — who was wearing that outfit to honor his Native American father — attracted the attention of a man dressed as a cowboy.
“Jacques and I suddenly had the same idea,” Belolo told the website Disco-Disco in 2000. “We said, ‘My God, look at those characters.’ So we started to fantasize on what were the characters of America. The mix, you know, of the American man.”
Their fantasy roster — an Indian, a construction worker, a leather-clad biker, a cowboy, a cop and a sailor — soon joined the disco inferno as the Village People: six buff men, led by singer Victor Willis (the police officer), performing exuberant songs laced with double-entendre. Rose was also a member.
Belolo, who was straight, and Morali, who was gay, initially focused on gay listeners as the group’s core audience. They had regularly frequented gay clubs in Manhattan like the Anvil and the Ramrod.
“Through that I understood the gay scene, the gay mentality and how interesting it was, because those people were very alive, enjoying life, enjoying the night life,” Belolo told the Red Bull Music Academy Daily, an online publication, in 2004.
Morali, who died from complications of AIDS in 1991, believed he and Belolo could build hits in gay discos — with songs referencing gay life — that would find mainstream success. He was right. “Y.M.C.A.” rose to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979; “In the Navy” reached No. 3 that same year; “Macho Man” peaked at No. 25 in 1978.
Morali said “Macho Man” was meant to appeal to the egos of men who went to health clubs to build their muscles. “Straight guys in America want to get the macho look,” he told Rolling Stone in 1979.
In 1980, Belolo and Morali were among the producers of “Can’t Stop the Music,” a widely panned movie comedy starring the Village People and directed by Nancy Walker. In the movie — a highly fictionalized version of the group’s story — the Village People are discovered by two friends, played by Valerie Perrine and Steve Guttenberg (whose character’s name is Jack Morell).
By then, disco had largely died. The movie was a bomb.
Belolo was born in Casablanca, Morocco, on Nov. 27, 1936. His father, Albert, was a sailor who became the city’s harbor director. His mother, Marcelle (Azoulay) Belolo, was a model and fashion designer.
Belolo had no musical training, but he was inspired as a youth by jazz, gospel and the blues, as well as by the rhythmic percussion that he heard in the streets played by the Gnawa people. He was a club DJ in Casablanca and worked for an independent label there before moving to Paris in the early 1960s. There he produced records for Polydor by Georges Moustaki, Serge Reggiani and actress Jeanne Moreau.
Belolo left for the United States in 1973, lured by the sound of Philadelphia soul embodied in songs like “Love Train” and “Back Stabbers,” written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. He started a label, Can’t Stop Productions, in Manhattan, where he met Morali. They soon formed their first prefabricated act: the Ritchie Family, a three-woman disco group.
“Brazil,” their first hit, adapted from a Carmen Miranda movie, went to No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975; a year later, “The Best Disco in Town” hit No. 17 on the Hot 100 and No. 12 on the soul chart.
The Village People followed soon after. Their debut album, “The Village People” (1977), consisting of four songs performed by Willis and a corps of backup singers, earned the group a deal with Casablanca Records. The full six-man group was then formed, consisting of Rose, Willis and four singers chosen after a casting call.
The group went on to release the albums “Cruisin’” (1978), which featured “Y.M.C.A.,” and “Macho Man,” also in 1978, which included the title song and “Key West.” Following a live album, “Live and Sleazy,” in 1979, they released “Go West” (1979), which included “In the Navy.”
The ownership of the group’s songs came into doubt in recent years, and in 2015 a federal jury ruled, among other things, that Willis was entitled to 50% copyright ownership in the United States of 13 of the group’s songs, including “Y.M.C.A.” Willis returned to the group in 2017 after a long hiatus.
“Henri and I resolved our creative differences years before his death,” Willis said in a statement. “I am grateful we did so.”
In addition to his son Jonathan, Belolo is survived by another son, Anthony; three grandchildren; three brothers, Simon, Georges and Jais; and two sisters, Vivianne and Ginette Belolo. His marriage to Daniele Allard ended in divorce.
Even as Belolo continued to administer the Village People’s music publishing over the past few decades, he also ran the family-owned Scorpio Music label in France, which specializes in producing and marketing dance and Latin music.
“I may describe the Belolo family’s way to work by only one word: love,” Belolo told Billboard in 2017. “We are transmitting a message to the public, and we can do it successfully because we do it with love.”