Far better known as the cop in the novelty disco act the Village People, Willis is also remembered for a number of drug-related troubles in the early 2000s that nearly up-ended his post-Village People days.
Yet there he was this week, being mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, after he won a court battle to claim at least a third of the copyrights for such songs as "Macho Man," "Y.M.C.A." and "In the Navy" that he co-wrote for his old group.
The former "Macho Man," who says he has a new album titled "Solo Man" coming out in a few weeks, declined to say what kind of payday he expects Monday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Barry Moskowitz to bring him.
"But those songs, they gross millions a year, so it could be a significant thing," he noted with a chuckle.
Willis was a musician-actor who, among other things, had appeared on Broadway in "The Wiz" when Jacques Moreli decided to cash in on the disco craze in 1977 by putting together a group made up of beefy, macho-looking guys dressed as a biker, a construction worker, a cop, a cowboy and an Indian chief.
Willis, who was the group's lead singer, was soon dancing up a storm with his cohorts to catchy beats while disco balls glittered and music blared around the country and in Europe.
The Village People sold tens of millions of records in the 1970s, and Willis co-wrote all the big hits. But he also signed away his copyrights to the songs for a cut of the profits that today ranges from 12 to 20 percent.
"I was very young and naive," he said by phone from New York on Thursday. "I didn't know at that point what I was going to be giving away. So If they put a contract in front of me, I signed it."
He said he suspects many other young artists did as well, and he hopes his court victory this week will eventually benefit them, too.
When Congress updated federal copyright law in 1978, it allowed songwriters to reclaim such signed-away copyrights after 35 years. That's something that over time is expected to affect the rights to songs by Dylan, Springsteen, Tom Petty, Billy Joel and others.
After Willis sought to get the copyrights to 33 songs back, the owners, Can't Stop Productions and Scorpio Music, sued to stop him, arguing that he was simply a "worker for hire" for the Village People and therefore had no stake in the songs. They also argued that because his co-writers didn't join him in seeking their share of the copyrights Willis shouldn't be granted his share either.
The companies dropped the "worker for hire" argument before Moskowitz issued his ruling Monday. The ruling determined that Willis didn't need to join with the others.
Still to be determined is just how much of the copyrights he'll control, one third or one half.
His co-writers are credited as Moreli and Henri Belolo, although Willis says he and Moreli really wrote the songs.
"Belolo didn't write anything. He was just the publisher," he said, adding he's confident that means the court will give him 50 percent.
The music publishers' attorney, Stewart Levy, disagrees, saying he expects Willis will get no more than a third, which he maintains isn't much more lucrative than the 20 percent he gets these days for "Y.M.C.A."
"We're disappointed of course but we don't think it's as big a deal as everyone is making it out to be," he said of Monday's ruling.
Willis' attorney, Brian Caplan said the case is the first addressing the rights of songwriters to terminate agreements they signed decades ago, and as such, lays the legal groundwork for others who seek to reclaim their copyrights.
That could open "a tremendous can of worms" for the music industry, said Mark Volman, coordinator of the Entertainment Industry Studies program and an assistant professor at Belmont University in Tennessee.
"It would be a tremendous win (for songwriters) to get something like that in place," said Volman, who as a founding member of the 1960s group the Turtles fought his own share of battles over royalty rights signed away.
As for Willis, he's looking to getting on with his career.
After a series of arrests on drug-related charges in the mid-2000s that resulted in a stint in rehab, he says his life has turned around in recent years.
"Life is fine. I went through whatever I went through, but everything is going great now," he said.
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