Randy Jones: Village People Cowboy ‘still kickin’ ass’

Randy Jones at “Mr. Right” Album Release in the Meatpacking District, NYC 2016. (Mikhail Torich)

When television lawman James Arness saddled up for his final episode of Gunsmoke in 1975, no one could have guessed that the reins of an iconic American symbol would soon be passed to a buff Broadway regular who hailed from Raleigh, North Carolina. But for Randy Jones, the original Cowboy and a founding member of the disco group Village People, the transition from wearing a leather thong as a fashion model to leather chaps as a singer was as welcome as a walk in his well-worn jeans.

In a career spanning four decades — before, during and since his stint with Village People — Jones has sold more than 100 million units and garnered in excess of a quarter billion views on YouTube. An American Music Award winner and multi-platinum recording artist, Jones is perhaps best known for his hits with Village People, like “Macho Man,” “In the Navy,” “Go West” and “Y.M.C.A.” Jones has toured worldwide, starred in the camp classic film, “Can’t Stop the Music“, made the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine and, in 2008, was honored with a group star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. We recently caught up with Randy Jones to chat about his trail blazing career and to learn about his latest film projects and his newest CD “Mr. Right.”

BPE: Thanks for calling in today. I hear a lot of noise in the background. Where are you?

RJ: I’m at Disney World. I’ve been performing down here since 1978 and fell in love with it, of course. I had two shows in Orlando last week and will be doing another show here later today. But the rest of my time here has been purely a vacation.

BPE: That’s one of the nice things about being a performer. You get to go to these exciting destinations, do your thing and then kick back a little bit.

RJ: These last 50 years – that is the course of my career – have been a luxury in that way. I have been very, very blessed to have a career where I could do all that I have done. I never knew as a young man in my 20’s that a few songs like “Macho Man,” “Y.M.C.A.,” “In The Navy,” “Go West” and “Can’t Stop the Music” could afford me this.

BPE: Tell us how you got into the entertainment business.

Randy Jones (seated left) with fellow Village People members David Hodo, Glenn Hughes, Alex Briley, Victor Willis, Felipe Rose. (O.P. Productions)

RJ: I’ve been entertaining people since I was about 14 or 15 years old. I started out in Raleigh, North Carolina doing theatre. After I graduated from high school, I proceeded to major in theatre, film and television at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Once I finished there, I went to the UNC School of the Arts to learn choreography and dance. There I became a member of my mentor Agnes de Mille’s dance company. Agnes had done Oklahoma, Brigadoon, Carousel and all those great shows. So, I danced with her company.

I left there and came to New York around 1975, where I worked in Broadway shows and modeled. Modeling, I got to know people like Jerry Hall and Grace Jones. Grace got an album deal around 1976 and did the album called “Portfolio” – the one with “La Vie En Rose” on it. I was one of the two guys who traveled with her – doing live shows. In the early days of disco, we were doing some of the first live shows around the country.

From that, the two French producers (Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo) of a group called The Ritchie Family, decided that they wanted to have an all guy group. They approached me after an annual awards show that Grace and I had done for Billboard magazine. Now, you have to picture this: It was about two in the morning and I was probably wearing nothing more than a chain around my waist and a leather jockstrap.

It was the 70’s, it was fashion, it was disco and I was maybe 23 years old. I was young, but I knew that when two men with heavy accents approach you at that time of night and say they’d like you to be in a group, that could go one of two ways. Now, I had a master’s degree, so I was well educated. I said, “That sounds interesting, but can we meet in an office atmosphere in the daytime to discuss this?”

So we did.

They told me all about their idea for the all guy group. Of course, when I met with them, I was dressed the way I came from North Carolina – jeans, a pair of boots and a western shirt.

BPE: Like you were just back from the tobacco market?

From left: Randy Jones, Glenn Hughes, Felipe Rose, Victor Willis, David Hodo, Alex Briley in 1978. (Mario Casciano)

RJ: (laughing) Exactly. But they liked the look and I thought, “Great – I can get out of that leather jockstrap.” So, I brought the cowboy image to a group that included the iconic images of the Indian, the construction worker, the soldier/sailor, the cop and the biker.

And I never looked back.

I won’t be so arrogant to say that either I or anyone else could have predicted the success we had, with over 1,000,000 records sold and approaching near half a billion views on YouTube. It’s something I honor, that legacy. I’m amazed and impressed every time it is brought to my attention.

I go to Yankee Stadium a few times every year, and they play “Y.M.C.A.” before the top of the seventh inning, just like they do at other major league ballparks around the country. I get a royalty check every three months to prove it! That song gets played a lot at high school reunions, bar mitzvahs, weddings, you name it.

BPE: It’s a song that has really taken on a life of its own?

RJ: Yes, but not only “Y.M.C.A.”  “Macho Man,” “In the Navy” and “Go West” – they are all deceptively simple pop songs. They sound silly, like the kind of songs that anyone could write, but how many songs like that have stood the test of time? It’s taken me around the world for the past 40 years. I’ve met presidents, a lot of queens, including Queen Elizabeth and Elton John (gentle laughter). It’s great for me – to have met so many important and wonderful people.

BPE: You also toured with Bob Hope?

RJ: Oh, yes. Bob Hope was one of our godfathers. We had five main godfathers in Hollywood when we began. Without these five gentlemen, I doubt we would have gotten the access we had to television and their enormous audiences. Bob was one of them. Dick Clark was another. He had us on The Dick Clark Show all the time. Anytime we had a new single, we were on American Bandstand. We were also guests a number of times on Dick’s New Year’s Eve shows.

Merv Griffin (Linda Bisset)

Hugh Hefner is another great godfather who understood what we did. We were about the fantasy, and Hef got that. I had a great conversation with him once at the Playboy mansion, just sitting on the steps after a party. Dorothy Stratten was there, too, because it was the roller skating party. But anyway, Hef said he appreciated what we were about. We walked the line yet never offended people. He compared it to his early days with Playboy where Marilyn Monroe was asked what she had on during the photo shoot and she replied, “The radio.”

The other godfathers were Don Kirshner, who staged those late night concerts on television, and Merv Griffin.

Merv had us on his show many, many times. Keep in mind, that in those days, all you had was the three major networks. So if you were on a show at 8 pm, you might be exposed to 25 – 40 percent of a nationwide viewing audience. And we were on TV at least once a week on some kind of show somewhere.

That’s pretty heady stuff for a 23 year old.

BPE: When you talk about being on television as much as you were, it’s fascinating to consider the barriers you were breaking down.

RJ: We did, and of course, in hindsight you have to see it in the historical perspective. I talked before about the deceptively simple songs. I don’t know that it was purposely intended that we break down the barriers that we did. Our purpose at the time was to entertain. We drew from so many inspirations to achieve that. I personally drew from my background and my education in creating the cowboy character. As an actor, I understand that character’s importance.

It’s the most iconic American image that there is. It’s not only an image to Americans that signifies independence, survival, and solitary individualism. It is an image that means America around the world.

Screenshot from The Great Train Robbery. (Edwin S. Porter – The Kobal Collection)

I not only understood what that character meant, but I had studied the history of that character – how that image also represented something that never really existed. Much of what we think about cowboys was created by Buffalo Bill Cody in the wild west shows he did with Annie Oakley. So, that character was a theatrical creation which emerged after the Civil War. From there, it was picked up by the nascent film industry. The first western film was The Great Train Robbery in 1903. Edwin S. Porter directed it. It has that great final 30 seconds of the film where the cowboy takes the gun, aims it right at the camera and fires it. That was so shocking, back then. So for 75 years, prior to us taking the stage, Hollywood had done the heavy lifting for us, in making these familiar characters – the cop, the construction worker, the soldier/sailor, the cowboy and the Indian – iconic images around the world.

However, having said that, these familiar characters had to get out on stage and sing silly songs like “Macho Man”. But all of us were performers and again, in my mind I knew that Hollywood had done the heavy lifting. We were all fans of the Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers, so we combined these well-crafted pop songs with some comedy.

BPE: It’s easy to see the Hollywood comedic influence, but there also seemed to be a burlesque air to your act.

RJ: Well, I rolled back to when I was a boy, and I would sneak into side-shows at county fairs. Now, these were not state fairs – these were rural events where you were driving on dusty dirt roads. You’d turn down a lane and arrive at a place where a stripper would be performing. Imagine – you’re 13 or 14 and you’ve never seen a pair of bare breasts. You’re able to sneak in because you’ve got the quarter to pay the admission. You’re there with your buddy, and you see this woman, and she has the pasties on with the tassels – twirling them and making them go in opposite directions. Then she grins at you. These weren’t “A” list strippers or even “B” list strippers. They were like somebody’s grandma with a tooth missing. And yet, she looks at you and she winks, like she is saying, “Now, don’t worry son. I know you’ve probably never seen a bare breast before, but no one’s gonna hurt ya. No one’s gonna touch ya and you’re gonna get out of here in just a second.” That’s the image I had in my head. I knew we could walk right up to the line and wiggle our hips, maybe open our shirts, but don’t cross the line. We always laughed at ourselves and the audiences laughed right along with us.

As an audience member, you might feel a little nervous laughing at a performer if you’re not sure they are in on the joke. But we were six enthusiastic, attractive and talented performers, and we got that. We were out there singing “Macho Man” and “In The Navy” dressed like cartoon characters. But we knew our first job was to entertain people.

Now, all of this other stuff you opened your question with, about being in the 70’s and how we came to represent different things to different groups of people, which we did, and we do – we understood that. Our first public performance was at 2001 Odyssey in Brooklyn, which was where Saturday Night Fever was shot. That was a totally 100% heterosexual audience. They were dressed in polyester and looked like John Travolta or Marie Osmond or Farrah Fawcett. And we came out looking like we should have been on stage at Heebie-Jeebies, with the ripped jeans and the leather jackets – just the opposite of the way they were dressed. But we were entertaining them. Conversely, we’d do a show before a group of 500 Gay men, and they were all dressed like us. Then there were other shows, where it would not only be a mix of straights and gays, but Black, white, Hispanic, young and old – people who wouldn’t have knowingly parked next to each other at Wal Mart. So, I think in many ways we brought people together.

We were also performing in the most intimate setting: the TV room in the family home.

We may not have been officially representing the LGBT community, but I think that in those 2-3 minute performances, a little incision was made above the hearts of many of those viewers, and a seed of tolerance and compassion and understanding was planted. It might not have been something they ever thought about, but the next time they encountered someone who was Gay, or Black or a biker or a Native American, they thought, “Well, there’s nothing to be afraid of here. We just saw six of those kinds of people singing ‘Y.M.C.A.’ and we loved it.” So we made a difference, in that way.

I guess we could also be accused of being the godfathers – NOT the grandfathers – of all of these dancing boy bands. I have a book out where I talk about that. When you can look back 30-40 years, you can get a true sense of what kind of repercussions you might have had. When you see the smiles on people’s faces when they are singing “Y.M.C.A.”, you realize not only the effect you had on pop music, but also on pop culture.

BPE: Speaking of pop culture, you also did The Love Boat? I was thinking of that because I recently interviewed Bernie Kopell.

RJ: I did! In fact, I did an episode with Betty White, if you can believe it. Bernie and Fred Grandy are both great. I saw Fred recently in Wilmington. He’s living in Charlotte, now, but he was doing a show in Wilmington while I was there shooting a new film called The Rack Pack. I see Ted Lange all the time. I saw Loni Anderson, who did that show, too, just last August, and she still looks just great. When people like me, who know their brand, know what people expect, you try to maintain that image, and Loni looks like we all remember her. Betty White, too. They both look terrific.

BPE: Could you bring us up to speed on what Randy Jones is doing today?

RJ: I have a new film which opened last October called Tales of Poe.

BPE: Please tell us about that. Remember: this is a Baltimore audience. We want to hear all about Edgar Allan Poe.

RJ: I was raised on Edgar Allan Poe. His work was some of the first things I read. I loved those old movies with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. So when I got the chance to meet with these film makers in New York and they decided to do an old-school three film anthology of Poe stories, I was excited to have a chance to be in the middle one. I’m in The Cask of Amontillado and I play Fortunato, so I get to be walled-up in the wine cellar. It’s a real horror movie and I love it.

I also shot the movie I mentioned a few moments ago, with C. Thomas Howell, called The Rack Pack It’s a family film which is due out sometime in 2017. I’m also shooting another new film this year called Puncture about New York City vampires. And I have one coming up where I play a disfigured radio clown. It has a Joan Crawfordesque character, so that should be a lot of fun.

BPE: You have a new CD and a single called Hard Times?

RJ: Yes, “Mr. Right” is my newest CD. There are different producers for the CD and the single, but the idea behind “Hard Times” is, what if a character like Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever had had his shot on Broadway and his dreams didn’t work out. He might not just work at the paint store but might also manage it. His wife has left him. He’s got a daughter who doesn’t talk to him anymore and a punk-rocker son with a Mohawk and tattoos. He has to work hard during the week, but still likes to cut loose on the weekend and do some ballroom dancing. It’s an up-tempo song that touches on what a lot people from that generation have experienced.

Randy Jones today.(Wikimedia)

BPE: You share a rather distinct honor with John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and several other famous cowboys?

RJ: Yes. For National Cowboy Day, Entertainment Weekly listed me amongst the 34 Great Pop Culture Cowboys and Cowgals. That list included John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, Audie Murphy and a number of others. There is also a move afoot to get me an individual star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a campaign to get me inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. It takes a number of signatures to make that happen, but I hope it comes about. If I can get your readers a copy of the petition, then I hope they will sign it.

BPE: If I could ask just one more question. A friend recently used the term, “Dead as disco.” Yet, disco seems to be very much alive, not only in the dance clubs, but in the way it still influences so many performers.

RJ: I would say the same thing. I don’t think disco ever really died. It just changed its name to dance music to protect either the guilty or the innocent. Any hip-hop song you hear today is certainly dance music. The history of dance music goes back beyond the rock & roll of the 50s and the jitterbugs of the 40s. It probably goes back to when people first started banging stones together in rhythm. So, I don’t think your friend was being accurate in saying disco is dead. I’m certainly not! My latest single, CD, stage show and movie all prove that. And if you want, you can get my book, called Macho Man or wait til 2019 for my memoir, called Glory Days and Disco Nights.

I’m sixty-four years old and I am still kickin’ ass.