The record producer and label boss Henri Belolo, who has died aged 82, helped define the “Eurodisco” genre of the later disco era in the second half of the 1970s.
He and his production partner, Jacques Morali, infused the emerging disco sound of New York with a flamboyant melodic style derived from French chanson and big-band opulence. With the groups he created, the Ritchie Family and especially Village People, Belolo took this European-influenced pop-dance music to commercial success in the US and globally.
With Victor Willis as frontman, Village People had massive hits with YMCA and Macho Man (both 1978) and In the Navy (1979), and the group’s outfits and double-entendre subject matter smuggled disco’s gay underground roots into mainstream culture.
A producer of French pop for Polydor in Paris who had set up his own label, Belolo had moved to the US in 1973 to be closer to the new dance music he had been licensing in Europe. He opened a New York office as Can’t Stop Productions, and a smaller talent-scouting operation in Philadelphia.
“I wanted to be a producer in America but I was looking for the idea,” Belolo explained. The spark came from Morali, a young A&R man Belolo had known in Paris, who suggested they concoct dance music inspired by 40s Busby Berkeley musicals and Carmen Miranda. The result was the Ritchie Family, a female vocal group that had hits with Brazil (1975) and The Best Disco in Town (1976).
Belolo and Morali made a formidable team, producing a steady stream of club and chart hits. But they will be remembered primarily for conceiving Village People, the cartoonish sextet of hypermasculine action figures that came to epitomise disco for much of the world.
They had already recorded with Willis, who had appeared on Broadway in The Wiz, and were on the look-out for an ensemble to build around him. As Belolo tells it, in 1977 they were walking down Christopher Street in New York when Morali took a fancy to a Puerto Rican bartender dressed as a Native American.
Following him to the gay club the Anvil, they watched as he alternated serving drinks with dancing on the bar. When a customer walked in dressed in full Marlboro Man get-up, with stetson and long moustache, “Morali turned to me”, Belolo recalled, “and said, ‘Oh God, are you thinking what I’m thinking?’”
They expanded the concept by scribbling down a list of gay archetypes, adding policeman, leatherman, construction worker, cowboy and soldier/sailor. The bartender, Filipe Rose, was hired as “The Indian”, with the rest of the group cast in a riotous open audition, with Alex Briley, Glenn Hughes, David Hodo and Randy Jones joining Willis in the first permanent line-up.
The songs were barely coded hymns to the joys of liberated pre-Aids cruising: “It’s fun to stay at the YMCA / They have everything for young men to enjoy / You can hang out with all the boys.” YMCA, written by Morali and Willis (with Belolo originally also credited), was a No 1 hit worldwide.
Belolo, who was straight, and Morali, who was gay, relished the idea of projecting these macho gay stereotypes to straight America. “I really did it as a provocative, subversive way of telling you: this is the way it is,” he insisted. “I did not like that American mentality of bigotry and hypocrisy, and I didn’t see why these people would be treated like this.”
Belolo convinced the US navy to lend him a warship and six aerobatic fighter planes for a music video of In the Navy. Amid the gold and platinum discs in his Paris office hung one of his most treasured keepsakes, a letter from the commanding officer of the frigate USS Reasoner making him an honorary sailor, “in recognition of the outstanding contribution of your new release In the Navy to the morale of USS Reasoner, to the cause of navy retention and the support of navy recruiting”.
Village People eventually sold some 65m records and, as disco reached its height, the group even appeared in a film, Can’t Stop the Music (1980), which was largely a disaster.
Belolo was a great showman and, though Morali was clearly the musical force throughout the partnership, and legal wranglings later forced Belolo to relinquish some of his writing credits to Willis, it was in his conceptual role that Belolo made an impact. Even today, the best French dance music combines heightened melodies over tough percussion, and it was Belolo, with Morali, who created this template.
Born in Casablanca, Morocco, Henri was the son of Albert Belolo, a sailor and Marcelle (Azoulay), a model, and was exposed to many musical styles growing up, including the French pop of Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf, jazz and gospel brought in by US servicemen and the percussion of the city’s Gnawa drum ensembles. He began DJing at clubs, playing records from Ghana and Senegal alongside American party tracks.
After studying business at university in Morocco, Belolo went to Paris in 1956. There he met Eddie Barclay, unwittingly wowing the record producer with his jukebox selection in a bar. Barclay, who had transformed the postwar French music industry by importing US jazz and rock’n’roll recordings, hired Belolo to run his operations in Casablanca, promoting records to Morocco’s clubs and radio stations.
In 1960 Belolo took up a job at Polydor in Paris. The bulk of his work there was in French pop, and he produced albums by the singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki and the film stars Serge Reggiani and Jeanne Moreau. In 1970 he left to set up his own label, Carabine, followed in 1976 by a publishing company, Scorpio music, which he ran until 2010, when his son, Anthony, took over. He licensed tracks by the Bee Gees, Carl Douglas, Tina Charles, George McCrae and KC and the Sunshine Band, and in 1973 made the move to New York.
Belolo and Morali followed up Village People’s success by moulding the pop-rap act Break Machine and bringing breakdancing to Europe. After Morali’s death from Aids in 1991, Belolo focused on licensing European pop dance acts including 2 Unlimited, Eiffel 65, Gala and Haddaway for the French market. He was made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 2016.
Belolo’s marriage to Daniele Allard ended in divorce; he is survived by his sons, Anthony and Jonathan, three grandchildren and five siblings.
• Henri Belolo, record producer, promoter and executive, born 27 November 1936; died 3 August 2019