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Oct. 2, 2010

From DWU to pop-culture icon: Olson and rest of Village People to perform tonight

Jennifer Jungwirth • The Daily Republic


Jeff Olson, “The Cowboy” in The Village People and a former Dakota Wesleyan University student, poses for a photo Thursday afternoon at DWU’s McGovern Library. Olson will perform along with the rest of The Village People tonight at the Corn Palace for DWU’s 125th Anniversary Blue and White Bash. Chris Huber/Republic

Thirty-two years after it was released, it’s still played frequently. And no one is scared to bust a move when it hits the speakers.

“Y.M.C.A.” is a classic song that has maintained its popularity and sparked the interest of generations of fans.

The group that sings it, the Village People, is also popular for hits “Macho Man,” “Can’t Stop the Music” and “Go West” and their costumes — a Native American, police officer, biker, construction worker, soldier and cowboy.

Among the six men in the group, one has deep South Dakota roots.

Before Jeff Olson, the cowboy of the group, traveled internationally with the Village People, he studied at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, graduating in 1975. He also had a band, Step Child, while in college.

To help celebrate DWU’s 125th anniversary, Olson and the rest of the Village People will perform at 8:30 p.m. today at the Corn Palace with opening act The Highlanders, a 1960s DWU alumni group that will perform at 7:30 p.m.

The evening will also feature a silent auction, food and beverages for sale and a memorabilia room and conversation area. Tickets are available for $30 at the Corn Palace box office, which opens at 9:30 a.m. today.

Filipe Rose (Native American), Alex Briley (soldier), David Hodo (construction worker), Ray Simpson (cop) and Eric Anzalone (biker) make up the rest of the Village People. Rose, Briley and Hodo were original members of the group. Simpson was added in 1979, Olson joined in 1980 and Anzalone was brought into the group in 1995.

Rose was spotted by Jacques Morali while dancing in an Indian costume in Greenwich Village in New York City. Morali’s idea was to form a troop of male singers that represented the stereotypical male images in the U.S., Olson said.

“We were kind of the original boy band,” he said.

When Olson joined the band in 1980, the Village People were taking off, making the cover of major music magazines and touring internationally.

“I was star-struck,” Olson said. “They were huge stars. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

Olson said his joining the group was a matter of luck.

After graduating from DWU, Olson and his college sweetheart moved to the San Francisco Bay area. “She went to grad school. I made pizzas,” he said. Soon, he was offered a modeling job, so he gave it a shot. “I hated modeling. I was not good at, it because I hated it.” But it was his modeling career that sent him to Paris, where he met Morali. Olson came back to New York to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with his family.

He came across an audition notice stating that the Village People were looking for a new singer.

“I auditioned and got the job right then and there. Talk about really being in the right place at the right time,” Olson said.

Now, more than 30 years later, the Village People are still touring and still loving what they do.

Olson said he and the rest of the group are incredibly thankful for their jobs.

“It’s incredible that anybody can exist in this business,” he said.

The reason for the Village People’s continuous success, Olson said, is that they still love performing and writing music.

And they’ve done just that over the decades. The Village People have gained popularity among several ages of fans.

“It is absolutely amazing to us to this date,” Olson said. “We play a lot of fairs, where there are little kids, ma and pop and grandma and grandpa, and they all know the words to the hits. They were so monumental that folks know the music. It’s the most flattering thing in the entire world. That’s why I love my job.”

It helps he has a supportive family, too.

Olson’s brother, Ed, a former South Dakota legislator, and sister, Debbie, reside in Mitchell.

The three are New York natives.

“He’s such a gracious guy. He doesn’t act like a star, so it’s hard to treat him like one,” Debbie said.

Ed remembers the day he was told his brother joined a band.

“I thought he’d be doing the bar scene around Long Island and playing in the bars,” he said, laughing. “We’ve had a lot of fun taking in his shows wherever we can.”

Their first and maybe favorite show was in Las Vegas, where Joan Rivers opened for the group.

“You never get tired of them. That’s what I love about it,” Ed said.

Jeff followed his older brother and sister to DWU to pursue an education.

“I had no desire to go to college, actually,” he said. “But I was fulfilling my parents’ dream.”

He majored in history and biology and minored in music. Already very musically inclined, Olson said he chose the minor to learn how to read music.

Olson has many memories from DWU, from his band Step Child to working in the food service and meeting DWU alumnus and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.

“I explained to Mr. McGovern that I drove my roommate absolutely nuts because I plastered the walls of our dorm room with McGovern posters. I thought he was the answer to all our ills,” Olson said.

And Olson’s favorite part of DWU: the old Graham Hall. He had a photo of his band taken on the balcony.

Although Olson has toured around the world, he still keeps in touch with many of his college classmates and band mates, and he looks forward to seeing them all again this weekend.

He admits he hasn’t used his double major yet, but he said DWU taught him a lot.

“First of all, they gave me a degree. I got smart,” he said. “But without a lot of my professors and staff, I probably would not have completed college. They really encouraged and inspired me. I found out I wasn’t a bad student after all.”

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