Born: August 25, 1950 in Stamford CT
Died: August 6, 2008 in New York NY
A vastly underrated singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Willy DeVille embraced American roots music – from blues and soul to rock 'n' roll, as well as Cajun and Hispanic sounds – like no artist before and since. His deep, warm voice is instantly recognizable and ranks with the best of the 1960s soul artists, while his songwriting chops are first rate, styled after the pop and early rock sounds of the Brill Building talents, as well as Leiber and Stoller and Doc Pomus.
Becoming Willy DeVille
Born William Borsey Jr. in Stamford, Connecticut of a working class family, the yet-to-be-known-as Willy DeVille first became interested in music after hearing the Drifters and other 1950s-era rock 'n' roll bands. Discovering the blues, he fell in love with the music of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, and singled out acoustic-bluesman John Hammond as a major influence on his music and performance style. Borsey taught himself guitar and launched, headfirst, into a number of different bands as a teenager.
Dropping out of high school, he hung around New York City's Lower East Side and the West Village, soaking up the sounds of artists like Hammond, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix. He travelled to London in 1971, looking for musicians to form a band, returning after a couple of years. Borsey then moved to San Francisco, where he put together the band that would become Mink DeVille, and took on the name Willy DeVille for himself.
Mink DeVille & CBGB's
Only after Mink DeVille relocated to New York City would they would find some degree of acceptance for the band's curious mix of soul, blues, and 1950s-styled rock 'n' roll. They added guitarist Louis X. Erlanger, who brought a bluesier influence to the band's sound. Becoming part of the city's notorious mid-1970s punk scene, Mink DeVille found a home at the infamous CBGB's club. Three Mink DeVille songs included on the Live At CBGB's compilation lead to a deal with Capitol Records. Working with producer Jack Nitzsche, the band recorded 1977's Cabretta (released as Mink DeVille in the U.S.).
Return To Magenta
Mink DeVille also recorded 1978's Return To Magenta with Nitzsche, but DeVille broke up the band soon after. Taking Erlanger with him to France, DeVille recorded 1980's Le Chat Bleu with studio musicians. DeVille penned three songs with legendary songwriter Doc Pomus. From this point, Mink DeVille was basically a solo act rather than a real band, DeVille honing his songwriting chops for albums like 1981's Coup de Grace and 1983's Where Angels Fear To Tread. While both albums were hits in Europe, they fared less well commercially stateside.
The release 1985's Sportin' Life, which also featured a couple of Doc Pomus collaborations, would be the end of Mink DeVille, as DeVille dropped the band name, fired his manager, and filed for bankruptcy in a restructuring of his career. DeVille launched his solo career proper with 1987's Miracle, released under his own name and recorded in London with guitarist Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits as producer. The album included the song "Storybook Love," a soulful ballad that would become DeVille's signature song and his only flirtation with mainstream acceptance.
As luck would have it, Knopfler was working on the score to director Rob Reiner's film The Princess Bride, and thought that "Storybook Love" would be a perfect fit with the movie's romantic theme. Reiner used DeVille's song as the film's theme song, earning the songwriter an Academy Award nomination; DeVille would later perform "Storybook Love" on that year's Academy Awards TV broadcast, but would lose the Oscar™ statue to a song from the film Dirty Dancing.
After Miracle, DeVille moved to New Orleans in 1988 for an extended stay. Long enamored of the city's rich R&B musical tradition, DeVille opted to work with some of the city's musical legends, including Dr. John, pianists Eddie Bo and Allen Toussaint, and Leo Nocentelli and George Porter Jr. of the Meters. Recorded live in the studio with no overdubs, 1990's Victory Mixture was a collection of New Orleans soul and R&B covers of songs by artists/writers like Earl King, Kit Carson, and Willy Hall.
While living in New Orleans, DeVille often found himself forced to record in Los Angeles, where he found fresh influences in the city's Latino musicians. DeVille recorded 1992's Backstreets of Desire with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and other Hispanic musicians. The album first saw DeVille mixing Creole, Cajun, and Spanish influences into his rock, soul, and R&B sound. DeVille continued in the same vein with 1995's Big Easy Fantasy and 1996's Loup Garou, both albums finding more commercial success in Europe than the U.S.
DeVille would work with noted Memphis producer Jim Dickinson for 1999's Horse Of A Different Color, a mix of original songs and covers of blues and soul gems from artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Andre Williams, and Ry Cooder. Recording with Dickinson's sons Luther and Cody, from the North Mississippi Allstars, as well as legendary Southern soul sidemen as David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, and Spooner Oldham, Horse Of A Different Color is considered by many to be the best work of DeVille's career.
By 2000, DeVille had kicked his longtime addiction to heroin, and moved to New Mexico, where he began to explore his Native American roots. DeVille moved back to New York City in 2003, which made it easier to tour Europe, where he remained in great demand as a performer. He returned to L.A. to record 2004's Crow Jane Alley, a spirited mix of soul and blues, and his final studio album, 2008's Pistola, which incorporated Tex-Mex and country sounds with New Orleans soul.
Recommended Albums: Few artists have as distinctive a musical vision as did Willy DeVille, and while his early recordings with Mink DeVille – especially Return To Magenta – display a glimpse of his later sound, his solo albums are the place to turn. Horse Of A Different Color is highly recommended, as is DeVille's New Orleans tribute, Victory Mixture, but you really can't go wrong with any of them.
Select Willy DeVille Discography
(Click on album titles to compare prices on PriceGrabber)
- Miracle (Polydor Records, 1987)
- Victory Mixture (Orleans Records, 1990)
- Backstreets Of Desire (Fnac Music, 1992)
- Willy DeVille Live (Fnac Music, 1993)
- Big Easy Fantasy (New Rose - France, 1995)
- Loup Garou (EastWest/Discovery, 1996)
- Horse Of A Different Color (EastWest, 1999)
- Acoustic Trio Live In Berlin (Eagle Records, 2002)
- Crow Jane Alley (Eagle Records, 2004)
- Pistola (Eagle Records, 2008)
- Come A Little Bit Closer: The Best Of Willy DeVille Live (Eagle Records, 2011)