Victor Edward Willis (born July 1, 1951) is an American singer, songwriter, and actor. He is best known as the original lead singer of the disco group Village People. His persona was the Cop and Naval Officer.
The son of a Baptist preacher, Willis developed his singing skills in his father's church. With training in acting and dance, he went to New York and joined the prestigious Negro Ensemble Company. He appeared in many musicals and plays, including the original Broadway production of The Wiz in 1976 and subsequently, the Australian production.
Willis also had written and recorded several demos of music in the mid-1970s and was eventually introduced to French disco producer Jacques Morali. Morali, who dubbed him the "young man with the big voice", approached Willis and said, "I had a dream that you sang lead vocals on my album and it went very, very big".
Willis agreed to sing lead and background vocals under the auspices of Village People, a non-existent concept group which included the hits "San Francisco (You've Got Me)" and "In Hollywood (Everybody is a Star)". The album became a huge hit in the burgeoning disco market. After an offer from Dick Clark for the group to perform on American Bandstand, Morali and Willis were pressed to develop a "real" group around Willis to perform live. They did so by placing an ad in music trade papers for "macho" singers who "could also dance" and "must have a mustache".
Willis was soon writing hit after hit produced by and co-written with Morali. Village People quickly rose to the top of the charts with Willis at the helm scoring numerous chart busters such as "Macho Man", "Y.M.C.A.", "In the Navy", and "Go West".
In 1980, as preparations for a Village People feature film Can't Stop the Music were under way, Willis left the group. Although he does not appear in the movie, he wrote the lyrics for two of the film's songs, "Magic Nights" and "Milkshake". Can't Stop the Music became one of the biggest Hollywood movie flops of all time.
After Willis departed, Village People never had another hit. In an attempt to "recapture the magic", Morali and Belolo convinced him to return to the group in 1982 for the album Fox on the Box. Despite the fact that album had a more urban rock feel, and also included one of the earlier hip-hop tracks, it was not a commercial success. In 1983, Willis left the group for good.
In 2013, Willis appeared on the TV One series Unsung in their two-hour special restrospective on the disco era.
After leaving Village People, Willis declined offers to record and consistently refused to perform any of his Village People hits. In 2010, he appeared at several Major League Baseball stadiums, performing The Star-Spangled Banner and leading the crowd for the traditional Y.M.C.A. 7th-inning stretch break.
In 1979, Willis recorded a solo album which remained unreleased for over 30 years. The album, Solo Man, will finally be released in 2014. His autobiography is also scheduled for release the same year.
In a historic ruling on May 7, 2012, in accordance with the Copyright Act of 1976, the United States District Court for the Southern District of California ruled that Willis can terminate his copyrights granted to publisher Scorpio Music and Can't Stop Productions because "a joint author who separately transfers his copyright interest may unilaterally terminate the grant." On September 13, 2013, Willis began to own (recapture) 33% of "Go West" "Y.M.C.A." "In the Navy," and other songs written for Village People and other acts. This percentage will increase to 50% if the songs are proven to have been written by solely by him and Jacques Morali, with no contribution from Henri Belolo (Morali's former business partner) who claimed credit as a writer.
Willis occasionally made headlines for arrests for drug possession. Following an arrest in 2006, he was given probation and ordered into rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic. In 2007, following treatment, Willis made his first statement to the press in more than 25 years, saying, "The nightmare of drug abuse is being lifted from my life... now that the haze of drugs are gone, I'm thinking and seeing clearer now than I have in years... I'm looking forward to living the second part of my life drug-free."
Willis was married to Phylicia Ayers-Allen (whom he met during the run of The Wiz, and who played Clair Huxtable on the The Cosby Show) from 1978 until 1982. He also wrote the lyrics for her album, Josephine Superstar. On November 17, 2007 Willis married a second time. His wife Karen is a lawyer and executive.