As a founding member of the Village People and the group’s longest serving member Felipe Rose has earned the right to call himself the “grandaddy of disco”.
Rose, a solo artist who recently released Back To My Roots, a funky dance single with nods to his Native American heritage, is immensely proud of his four decades with the group. “We were about inclusion, celebrating who you are and living your life your way,” he explains from his home in the US, where he’s been busy performing at Pride gigs across the country.
Rose was a young singer and dancer living in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1970s when he was scouted by music producer Jacques Morali. Rose stood out from all the other pretty young men as he was wearing Native American dress and ankle bells (yes, even before joining the music group most synonymous with fancy dress, Rose was happiest in costume).
“My father is of Taino and Lakota descent so I used to go out in the Village all the time in Native American dress,” he says. “I was in the first generation after Stonewall. I came out in 1970 and moved in the Village in 1972. They were great times. I was following my dreams, I felt free.”
Morali recruited Rose to join the Village People, a disco group formed around lead singer Victor Willis, a complicated character who also co-wrote some of the group’s most suggestive lyrics. Each member of the group dressed as a macho fantasy persona; alongside Rose’s Native American was the construction worker, the police officer, the cowboy, the biker and the military man.
The catchy tunes and camp get-up made the Village People a global sensation and the group enjoyed chart success with Macho Man, Go West, You Can’t Stop The Music, In the Navy and YMCA, the VP’s biggest hit which is now a gay anthem. The accompanying YMCA dance is still regularly performed at major sporting events in US, and at weddings and parties everywhere.
It was the Reagan era and the Village People achieved the unlikely feat of enjoying cult status in the gay community, and widespread popularity with conservative America. Rose laughs: “Middle America loved us – they didn’t get us, but they loved us.”
When the group’s following waned as disco went out of fashion some in the line-up (including Willis) left, but Rose stuck it out, all in all notching up 40 years in the Village People.
And that would have been the end of the story until last year when Willis was granted trademark rights to the Village People name in a bitter court battle. After a 38-year absence Willis was back in charge and Rose and the remaining members of the group were out – for good.
“It was a nightmare,” says Rose, still stung by the fallout. “It was 40 years of my life. I saw many others come and go: three cowboys, three construction workers and two bikers. I have the history. But what can you do?”
A true show biz trouper, Rose decided to re-boot as a solo artist. “You can lose yourself after a while and forget why you’re in this industry. I feel now I’m getting back to my roots – as my new song says (CLICK HERE to listen to the new tune). I’ve found my love of music again.”
His current solo show is a mix of new material, disco, native and a few VP hits. A European tour is also in the pipeline.
“I’d love to visit the UK again. I have so many memories of visiting with the Village People. I can remember when You Can’t Stop The Music went platinum in the UK we went to the House of Commons for the launch of Guinness Book of Records’ Top 100 Singles. I was in my Native American clothing and Elton John came up to me and said: ‘Hi, I’ve always wanted to Pocohantas’. I said: ‘Elton, yuk yuk’.”
Whatever the future holds for Rose, he is comfortable with his legacy: “I see myself as a founding father – probably a founding grandfather by now – of disco.”
MAIN PHOTO: Eric Anzalone, Ray Simpson, Jim Newman, Felipe Rose, Bill Whitefield and Alex Briley as the Village People at an event in France back 2016. Photo: Hubert Boesl, courtesy PA Images.