Laying all the cards on the table, this is an unapologetic tribute to Willy DeVille. That being said, the account covers a highly productive period of DeVille’s career stretching from 1977 through to the early 2000’s, (including his work with the Mink DeVille Band 1974-1986).
It’s truly unfortunate that an outstanding singer, songwriter, guitar player, and band leader such as DeVille never received the recognition in North America that he enjoyed in Europe. When he died on August 6, 2009 at 59 of pancreatic cancer, North American audiences, in general, probably weren’t aware that the music world had lost an exceptional talent.
I first heard DeVille in 1977 on a Q-107 “new music” segment. I don’t quite recall the DJ that was promoting him – it might have been Bob Mackowycz – but he played 3 tracks from “Cabretta”, the first Mink DeVille album. The first cut, Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk” struck me as someone channelling John Lee Hooker. The next, Willy’s own “Spanish Stroll” reeked of New York, complete with a Lou Reed “Walk On The Wild Side” like chorus and sneer. The final selection, a DeVille rocker “She’s So Tough”, revealed yet another Willy DeVille – sturdy yet vulnerable. In addition to being blown away by every track, my initial thought was “how many voices does this guy have?” I was an immediate fan and would go on to not only buy “Cabretta” but, in time, also several more Mink / Willy DeVille albums. And, heeding the DJ’s advice to see Willy anywhere and anytime availability permitted, I would catch Willy whenever he came to town.
William Paul Borsey Jr. was born in Stamford Connecticut on August 25, 1950. He left high school at 16 to follow in the varied footsteps of his heroes. His musical tastes both ran deep and were far ranging. Drawn initially to the blues of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, DeVille was also influenced by The Drifters and bluesman and slide guitar player John Hammond Jr. These two somewhat dissimilar artists played a major role in the shaping of the DeVille persona. Willy said of The Drifters – who would have a marked and lasting effect on his music – “It was like magic; there was drama, and it would hypnotize me”. And DeVille – who started out as a singer, and didn’t pick up the guitar till his late teens – stated that he owed a large debt to Hammond, citing Hammond’s 1965 album “So Many Roads,” (that featured members of The Band plus Michael Bloomfield), as “changing my life”.
Willy DeVille’s musically inspired odyssey began in New York. It included a stop in London England and a return to New York, before venturing to San Francisco where he would form the first incarnation of the Mink Deville Band in 1973, (or Billy de Sade & The Marquis as they were originally called).
Not satisfied with the 70’s scene in San Francisco, he convinced the band to follow him back to New York. Once there, the Mink DeVille Band quickly established themselves. Following a successful audition, the band went on to stand as CBGB’s house band from 1975 through 1977. CBGB’s, (an acronym for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues), ironically was one of, if not the prime, venue where Punk Rock was born. Adding further irony to the situation, is that while Willy and the band were a product of NY’s Punk scene, and certainly shared Punk’s energy, the similarities stopped there. Instead, DeVille’s sound was an amalgam of gritty NY Rock mixed with old time R&B, Doo Wop, and Latin tinged Soul. And, DeVille’s chameleon like vocals served as the glue that held everything together.
DeVille’s significant skills didn’t go unnoticed. Already displaying a fully formed heart rending slow drag / ballad style, Willy came to the attention of the one and only Doc Pomus, who dropped by CBGB’s to check him out. Pomus, who wrote countless hits for artists including Ray Charles, The Drifters, Ben E. King, Elvis Presley, and Dion & The Belmonts, was immediately taken with DeVille’s vocals. Upon meeting Willy, Pomus introduced himself, and quickly got down to business: “I love the way you sing babe… Maybe we can write some songs together… I’m in the phone book under Jerome Pomus… Give me a call”. Wow!
At the same time, DeVille also came to the attention of Capitol Records who would sign him to his first recording contract and release three excellent Mink DeVille albums: the aforementioned “Cabretta” plus “Return To Magenta”, and “Le Chat Bleu”. All three rate as 5 star recordings but the pure artistry of 1979’s “Le Chat Bleu” sets it apart from its predecessors.
“Le Chat Bleu” would mark the first time that Pomus / DeVille co-writes would appear on an album. Recorded in Paris, (so that DeVille could use Jean Claude Petite, renowned for the string arrangements on French torch singer Edith Piaf’s recordings), the album features 3 compositions penned by DeVille and Pomus, (all stunning ballads): “That World Outside”, “You Just Keep Holding On”, and “Just To Walk That Little Girl Home”.
The album’s resultant overall sound, (with its elaborate orchestration, strings, and accordion), was one that the Capitol brass was certain would not sell in North America. Consequently, they refused to release it outside of Europe – a decision that resulted in an abrupt about face when, as an import, “Le Chat Bleu” outsold both “Cabretta” and “Return To Magenta” combined. The positive response of the North American release was found in not only comparatively significant sales and radio play, but critical attention as well. Case in point, Rolling Stone named “Le Chat Bleu” # 5 album and DeVille as the # 1 vocalist in its’ year-end review.
Despite the success of “Le Chat Bleu”, a combination of personal and business associated problems would result in DeVille severing ties with Capitol. Luckily, one of the champions of NY R&B, Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records, was accepting of Willy’s personal challenges as a trade-off for his prodigious talent. And Atlantic was rewarded artistically with 2 superlative efforts of the 3 releases on the label: “Coup De Grace” and “Where Angels Fear To Tread”.
“Coup De Grace” is a logical extension to “Le Chat Bleu”, and features Willy’s outstanding takes on Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” and Eddie Hinton’s “Help Me Make It”. “Where Angels Fear To Tread” contains selections like “Demasiado Corazon” that foreshadow Willy’s distinctive style, that one critic described as “Spanish Americana”, and that would be fleshed out in future releases.
After leaving Atlantic, with the exception of 1987’s “Miracle” on A&M – the first album under his own name – Willy would not record again with a major label. “Miracle”, (cut in London with Mark Knofler in the producer’s chair as well as guesting on the release), includes what is probably DeVille’s best known song, “Storybook Love”. The song served as the theme of the movie “The Princess Bride” and was nominated for an Academy Award. DeVille even performed the song at the Academy Awards ceremony.
Over the course of the rest of his career Willy DeVille would record in various locales both in the U.S. and Europe. Each of the ensuing 10 albums, (plus 2 live posthumous releases), have something to recommend them. And, three stand as some of DeVille’s best work: “Victory Mixture” (1990) recorded in New Orleans, “Backstreets Of Desire” (1994) recorded in Los Angeles, and “Horse Of A Different Colour” (2001) recorded in Memphis.
DeVille relocated to New Orleans in 1988. In tribute to his new found home, Willy decided to cover songs from New Orleans’ rich R&B history. As part of that plan, he invited some of the musicians who were on the original recordings to play on the sessions. When his offer wasn’t met with a lot of interest by the leery musicians, DeVille asked Dr. John, (Mac Rebennack), to act as an intermediary, and talk to them on his behalf. Dr. John told them, (paraphrasing because neither you nor I are likely to understand The Good Doctor’s unique street jargon): “He doesn’t have to use you guys; he wants to do it so you’ll get paid this time”. In response, Allen Toussaint, Earl King, and Eddie Bo, among others, agreed to play on the joyous, live-off-the-floor recording. Selections include Ernie K-Doe’s “Hello My Lover”, Irma Thomas’ “Ruler Of My Heart”, and Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junker’s Blues.”
“Backstreets Of Desire” is considered by many to be one of DeVille’s very best. Dedicated to the memory of Doc Pomus, the album draws on a number of DeVille’s influences while delivering a mixed bag of musical styles that Willy handles authoritatively. Utilizing the talents of a variety of top notch musicians such as Dr. John, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, DeVille leads the way through selections that include the broken hearted ballad “Empty Heart”, the Latin Soul of “Bamboo Road”, and the Memphis funk of “Come To Poppa”. From start to finish, every track’s a killer.
I could easily be convinced to pronounce the masterful “Horse Of A Different Colour” Willy DeVille’s finest hour. If not his best, it certainly isn’t surpassed by anything else he committed to tape. The album is helmed by eccentric producer Jim Dickinson and backed by a peerless band consisting of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios rhythm section, Dickinson’s sons (Luther and Cody of North Mississippi All-Stars renown), Dickinson himself, and choice Memphis musicians. Against that backdrop, every track contributes to a now fully developed realization of DeVille’s “Spanish Americana”.
Starting with the opener “Gypsy Deck Of Hearts”, a number of the songs fit comfortably into DeVille’s Spanish Soul bag. But the set, punctuated with shades of Hill Country blues (“Goin’ Over The Hill”), chain gang laments (“18 Hammers”), and dirty R&B (“Bacon Fat”), is far more than that. For instance, DeVille gives Ry Cooder and Harry Dean Stanton’s “Across The Borderline” an understated reading filled with resignation and just a hint of hope. And Willy injects a heart full of pain into a minimalist version of Jackie DeShannon’s “Needles And Pins. In short, “Horse Of A Different Colour” is a brilliant recording that begs to be heard.
Not including compilations, Willy DeVille released 19 albums in the course of his 35 year career. I would venture to guess that none of them have been hugely successful on this side of the Atlantic. DeVille isn’t the first artist to suffer the fate of little recognition and appreciation at home; but it doesn’t diminish his substantial talent that’s been confirmed in his musical statements.
If you’re not familiar with Willy DeVille, Google him; YouTube him; Spotify him. Or better yet, buy one of his albums. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.
Suggested Willy DeVille Playlist:
- Venus Of Avenue D
- Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl
- Cadillac Walk
- Spanish Stroll
- She’s So Tough
- Guardian Angel
- Soul Twist
- “A” Train Lady
- This Must Be The Night
- Savoir Faire
- That World Outside
- Just To Walk That Little Girl Home
- Turn You Every Way But Loose
- Heaven Stood Still
- Just Give Me One Good Reason
- Help Me Make It
- You Better Move On
- Demasiado Corazon
- Hello My Lover
- Bamboo Road
- Rico Ferrara, January 2021
3 thoughts on “Willy DeVille – Gypsy King Of Hearts”
I regret never having an opportunity to see Willy or Mink Deville live. His albums are every bit as good as you say. So interesting about Le Chat Bleu – yet another example of a record company that has no clue. Mind you, while Capital takes the shame here, he didn’t last at Atlantic long either. Although the smaller labels didn’t have the distribution or budgets to promote him, Willy kept making outstanding albums. You have written a great tribute to him!
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After spending some time with the excellent playlist, and then the albums, it’s easy to understand you flying the fan flag for Willy. The lack of mainstream exposure is a sad reflection on the record business, but your tribute helps to showcase a valuable addition to our listening choices. Well done!
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I was not that familiar with DeVille, in name only. His singing has a certain charm, almost bewitching. And such a wide range of styles. Excellent write up.
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