Exploring the enduring appeal — and great attitude — of the disco-era frontman and Raleigh native, know for the classic song ”Y.M.C.A”.
by David Menconi
“Y.M.C.A.,” the Village People’s disco-era signature song, has been in the air pretty much constantly since 1978, played at countless weddings, parties and baseball parks. It is also a favorite of former President Donald Trump, who had it played at enough of his rallies that Village People lead singer Victor Willis demanded he stop.
But at least one of Willis’ bandmates — Raleigh native Randy Jones, the cowboy in the Village People — has a different attitude. He gets asked about Trump and “Y.M.C.A.” all the time, and his attitude remains that in music, there is détente.
“Our goal was always to make pop music,” Jones says, “the very definition of which is ‘popular.’ We wanted to be seen and heard and enjoyed by as broad an audience as possible. Our music is appreciated by right and left and all points in between. All part of this wonderful legacy and career that has gone on for God knows how much longer than anybody ever said it would.”
Jones laughs loudly at that last part, which is something he does often — and it’s easy to see why. Even with the disco trappings, Jones’ story is a classic American tale. He grew up in the Lions Park neighborhood in Raleigh and founded the drama club at Enloe High School, serving as its president and also starring as King Arthur in a student production of Camelot (opposite future Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell).
After studying theater at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, Jones headed for New York City in the mid-1970s to break into show business. Being part of proto-disco singer Grace Jones’ stage act got him in front of a producer, who asked if he could sing, dance and act.
“Of course I said yes,” Jones remembers. “Always say yes to whatever they ask.” Having already played a rodeo cowboy in a Big Red chewing gum commercial, Jones had some experience exuding a “Marlboro Man” look. So he was cast as the cowboy in Village People, a disco-styled pop band that was integrated in terms of both race and sexual orientation. Frontman Willis dressed as a cop and others in the ensemble played sailor, construction worker, biker and Native American.
Success quickly followed, with “Y.M.C.A.” and “In the Navy” tracking high on the pop charts in 1979. But for all their popularity, Village People were never taken seriously. Critic Peter Shapiro’s 2005 disco history Turn the Beat Around called them the “nadir” of the style, writing that they “represented everything uncool about disco.”
Jones has heard it all before. “Not many people gave us much chance of longevity in 1978,” he says. “But the more the music is played, enjoyed and appreciated, it proves the point of what we did 45 years ago. We made music that makes you feel good. People still listen to it, and we’ve been proven right. Not a bad way to feel about one’s career and legacy.”
Willis is the sole original member in the current version of Village People, who still perform to this day. Jones left in the early 1990s and has returned to music periodically, even cracking Billboard’s dance-music chart with the 2017 solo hit “Hard Times” (his first chart appearance since the late 1970s).
Now 71 years old, Jones spends most of his time in Florida with longtime partner Will Grega, his husband since 2004. He still acts, mostly in low-budget horror films like 2020’s The Cannibal Killer: The Real Story of Jeffrey Dahmer. He’ll also appear as himself in My Friend Oscar, an upcoming time-traveling fantasy about the 19th-century playwright Oscar Wilde.
“If something comes along and it sounds fun, especially something I’ve not done before, I’m in,” he says. Still, it’s the stuff he’s done before that makes Jones in demand for appearances at fan conventions. He was on the bill for this past July’s GalaxyCon at the Raleigh Convention Center. Of course, there was a “Y.M.C.A.” flash-mob tribute right by the building’s Sir Walter Raleigh statue.
“If Randy’s ever had a depressing day in his life, I’ve never seen it,” says Raleigh theater legend Ira David Wood III, his friend for many years. “I’ve never seen him without a smile. He’s also got pictures of himself with everybody on the planet. Name anybody, and he’ll pull up a picture of them with an arm around him, having a grand time.”
You could say that Jones has exactly the right attitude for life as a celebrity who is most famous for a single, universally known song.
“There are a lot of pop songs, but ‘Y.M.C.A.’ has got to be one of the most famous ever,” he says. “Like it’s in the water and everybody’s DNA — everyone seems to have some awareness of it. You can’t buy that. Every time a flash mob happens or someone comes up to tell me how much it meant to them at their wedding or birthday or a ballgame, it’s amazing.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.