Deville, Willy “Mink” Walks On at 59 years

By Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country 8-09

Willy “Mink” Deville, who strolled into spirit August 6, was never a punk. Despite coming out of the CBGBs original band scene of the mid 1970s that spawned Blondie and the Ramones, Deville always had an R&B heart that never fit in with the loud, fast, hard clique he came out of.

Willy DeVille was born as William Borsey in Stamford, Connecticut (he took the name Willy DeVille in 1974). His maternal grandmother was a Pequot, and he was also of Basque and Irish descent.

As he put it, “A little of this and a little of that; a real street dog.” DeVille said about Stamford, “It was post-industrial. Everybody worked in factories, you know. Not me. I wouldn’t have that. People from Stamford don’t get too far. That’s a place where you die.”

DeVille quit school at age fourteen and started frequenting New York's Lower East Side and West Village. “It seemed like I just hung out and hung out. I always wanted to play music but nobody really had it together then. They had psychedelic bands but that wasn’t my thing.”

DeVille’s interests ran to blues guitarists Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and especially John Hammond. "I think I owe a lot about my look, my image on stage, and my vocal riffs to John Hammond. A lot of my musical stance is from John,” Deville said

As a fourteen year old kid in the early sixties he sat on the roof of a building on MacDougal Street, hearing the raucous and throaty voice of Fred Neil, of Bob Dylan's unbridled folk hymns and of the electroshock guitar of Jimi Hendrix waft out of the clubs on the street. And the kid sitting on the roof, he took it all in. Willy DeVille's introduction to music contains within it the true, pure character of an urban tale.

In 1977, after having been billed as Mink DeVille, the staggering recording debut of Willy Deville takes place with the launching of the album Cabretta, praised by Rolling Stone as one of the best albums of the year, with the charm of it’s popular urban rock’n’roll-rhythm’n’blues of the ‘50s and ‘60s, between the Drifters and Phil Spector.

It was Jack Nitzsche, the former arranger of Phil Spector and of Wall of Sound during the Golden Age of Teenage Pop who produced the album. Two hits brought Willy Deville public recognition, particularly in Europe: “Spanish Stroll” and “Cadillac Walk.”

“There was the Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, the Talking Heads, and us,” Deville said “We were the five big draws. And then one night this blond-headed guy came in to CBGB, Ben Edmonds (an A&R man for Capitol Records, and previously an editor for Creem). He was the guy who was responsible for being the visionary who saw that we were different than they were and that we could probably have a career playing music.

“So we went into this cheap little studio and did four songs, which Edmonds gave to Jack Nitzsche. I didn’t even know who Nitzsche was. Nitzsche did all the Phil Spector stuff that we grew up with and loved. We just fell in love with each other. We were buddies to the end. He was like my crazy uncle. I called him my mentor and my tormentor”

willy-deville-1.jpgJack Nitzsche immediately recognized an artist with a faith and a romanticism rare for the times. Their fruitful collaboration continued the same year with the excellent Return to Magenta .

Coup de Grâce, real soul, followed in 1981 and then, in 1983, Where Angels Fear to Tread, in which Willy DeVille surprised his public with “Demasiado Corazon” and its openly salsa approach. This was followed by Sportin’ Life in 1985, which featured the massive European hit “Italian Shoes.” His song “Storybook Love” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song when it was featured in the film The Princess Bride.

He settled in New Orleans which proved to be extremely fertile soil. In this new musical phase, Willy re-appropriated the rhythm’n’blues standards of his idols and brought out, in 1990, an intensely rootsey album, Victory Mixture, recorded with the legendary musicians Dr. John, Eddie Bo, Allen Toussaint.

He made several more albums with various southern influences.

Willy’s last studio album came out in 1999. Entitled Horse of a Different Color, an old American expression meaning something that could be the same but is very different, it is an unsettling exploration of the music of the South, made up of remakes of traditional black music.

In 2002 Willy took his music on the road in the stripped-down form of an acoustic trio, comprising Willy and his guitar, a double bass and a grand piano. The Berlin leg of this tour was recorded and released as both an album and a DVD, again to considerable critical acclaim.

The next chapter in Willy’s remarkable journey is the album Crow Jane Alley that found him in full Native garb, a radical change form his pompadoured, street smart, skinny black suit look.

Recorded in Los Angeles, Willy produced a truly landmark album in an already exceptional career. From the Latin street-groove of “Chieva” (featuring David Hidalgo of Los Lobos) and “Come A Little Bit Closer,” via the heart-felt “My Forever Came Today” and the uniquely delivered cover of Bryan Ferry’s “Slave To Love,” to the deeply reflective “Crow Jane Alley” (recorded in memory of his old friend and collaborator Jack Nitzsche), this record oozes soul and blues from every groove.

Critic Robert Palmer wrote about him in 1980, “Mr. DeVille is a magnetic performer, but his macho stage presence camouflages an acute musical intelligence; his songs and arrangements are rich in ethnic rhythms and blues echoes, the most disparate stylistic references, yet they flow seamlessly and hang together solidly. He embodies (New York’s) tangle of cultural contradictions while making music that’s both idiomatic, in the broadest sense, and utterly original.”


Doc Pomus, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member with whom he penned several songs, wrote about him, “DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow – timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quit for a minute.”

Robert Palmer later said “Mr. DeVille's career never quite took off, despite the impressive breadth and depth of his talent. His last show at the Savoy he demonstrated with an almost insolent ease that he is still ready for the recognition that should have been his several years ago. He has the songs, he has the voice, and he has the band. And he has expanded the scope of his music by adding elements of French cafe songs and Louisiana zydeco to the mixture of rock, blues, Latin and Brill Building soul that was already there.”

Said DeVille: “I had band problems, manager problems, record company problems. And yeah, I had drug problems. Finally I got a new recording contract, with Atlantic, and a new manager. I cleaned up my act. I figured that since playing music with people I was friends with didn’t seem to work out, I would hire some mercenaries, some cats who just wanted to play and get paid. And those guys turned out to be more devoted to the music than any band I ever had. They’re professional, precise, but they’re full of fire, too.”

For Deville there were three main eras. The first era was the Lower East Side, skinny tie, purple shirt, West Side Story, Puerto Rican Sharks gang vibe.

Then it transmuted into the Mississippi plantation-gambler riverboat rogue, the Rhett Butler thing where he had had custom-made suits, and really got into the period and the clothes and just totally immersed himself in New Orleans, not the present New Orleans, but the New Orleans of the 1880s and 1890s – the Absinthe-drinking, voodoo New Orleans. He totally immersed himself in that.

Then he left New Orleans and moved to the Southwest, found his Native roots and came back as the second coming of Black Elk. DeVille wore long hair. He began wearing Native American clothing and jewelry on stage.

By 2000, DeVille had cured his two-decades-long addiction to heroin. He relocated to Cerrillos Hills, New Mexico, where he produced and played on an album, Blue Love Monkey.

But tragedy was about to set in motion the beginning of the end for Deville’s musical and spiritual journey. In New Mexico, DeVille's wife of many years. Lisa, committed suicide by hanging; DeVille discovered her body.

He said: I got in a car accident because I got crazy. I think I was somewhat taunting death because somebody who I loved very much died. And I found them. That’s what that lyric in that song means (“she hurts me still since I cut her down” [from “Downside of Town” on Crow Jane Alley]). I cut her down. Next thing you know the police show up, I was in tears... I was in love with another woman and we were going through some hard times, and I got in the car and I wanted to go off the cliff. I was in the mountains in New Mexico... They came right around the corner head on. You know how big a Dodge Ram truck is? I broke my arm in three places and my knee went into the dash board... It was bone to bone... I was on crutches and on a cane for about three years and I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything. I was f*cked up. I was ready for the scrapheap.”

“I guess I was testing the waters to see if I would live through it” DeVille said. “It was a foolish, foolish thing to do.” For the next five years, DeVille walked with a cane and performed sitting on a barstool.

After living for 15 years in New Orleans and the Southwest, DeVille returned to New York City, where he took up residence with Nina, his third wife. He continued touring Europe, usually playing music festivals in the summer.

In February 2009, DeVille was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. In June 2009, doctors discovered pancreatic cancer when preparing for his Hepatitis C treatment.

His wife Nina wrote on his Website, “It is with a broken heart that I have to tell you that while the doctors examined Willy to prepare him for the Hep C treatment, they discovered that he has pancreatic cancer. He is doing okay and is not in pain and at home watching movies, listening to music, playing a little guitar and reading. We hug a lot and am grateful for the time we have together. Please send him your prayers and good wishes. With love from Nina.”

On August 7, 2009, she left the following message: “It is with heavy hearts that we let you know that Willy passed away peacefully last night, August 6, 2009. His music and spirit will always be with us.”