On March 5, William Royce Scaggs will release Memphis, his first album in five years. This news may not merit even a shrug—there will also be a new Stephan Micus album out that day, and unless you’ve been itching to hear “I Praise You, Sweet-Smelling Cypress,” you may be unmoved by this news, too. When you realize that Mr. Scaggs goes by the nickname “Boz,” however, your interest might be piqued.
Everything about the upcoming release sounds as though Memphis may be among the best things Scaggs has done in a very long time. Recording was done at Royal Studio, site of the defining ’70s soul sides by Al Green and Willie Mitchell. His band for the album includes the Memphis Horns, Spooner Oldham on keys, and a Willie Weeks-Steve Jordan rhythm section. And the track list includes such face-palmingly-obvious selections as “Love On A Two-Way Street” (a 1970 hit for The Moments), “Can I Change My Mind” (Tyrone Davis’ 1968 classic), and the venerable “Corrina, Corrina,” all songs that are hard to believe he hadn’t cut before.
Amid the impeccable cover selections on Memphis, two in particular jump out: a pair of songs that appeared on an album together once before, way back in 1977. Around the time Scaggs hit commercial pay dirt with Silk Degrees, a New York band introduced their R&B-flavored, punk-influenced roots rock with their debut LP, Cabretta, and its two defining cuts, “Mixed Up Shook Up Girl” and “Cadillac Walk.” Formerly known as Dilly DeSade & the Marquis, this band called itself Mink DeVille, reasoning that “there can’t be anything cooler than a fur-lined Cadillac.”
Mink DeVille’s Cabretta channeled all the attitude they’d cultivated as house band for CBGB, then at the epicenter of the East Coast’s punk/new wave explosion, into a smoldering set as cool as the leather jacket that lent the album its name. The smoky-voiced, sloe-eyed lead singer—born William Borsey, known as Willy DeVille—had a striking, commanding stage presence, something like Vincent Gallo with a better disposition and a wider range of emotions.
On stage and on record, he snarled the sneering “Gunslinger” as naturally as he put the smooth moves on “Venus of Avenue D,” as if he were playing both Jim Stark and Buzz Gunderson in Rebel Without A Cause. As sharp as the band sounded, especially the gutsy guitar work of Louis X. Erlanger, much of what made Mink DeVille’s debut so memorable, leading Rolling Stone magazine to name it one of the best albums of 1977, was the distinctive, soulful vocal style of Willy DeVille.
While it’s unusual for any singer to cover two songs from a single album by another artist, it’s obvious that Scaggs found this band fitting for his own brand of blue-eyed soul. Beyond their suitability, it also appears that Scaggs chose to do the songs out of a long-held admiration for the inimitable DeVille (who died of pancreatic cancer in 2009). On his commentary for “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl,” the lead single from Memphis, Scaggs attests to being stricken by the Cabretta album on its release, and particularly notes the “cutting steel voice” out in front of the band. Scaggs is effusive and astute in his appreciation for the album and, especially, for DeVille, who he considers not only “[an] important voice from that period,” but flat-out, “one of the greatest voices … in all of rock.”
A significant departure from the ultra-slick R&B of his massive Silk Degrees hits, what Scaggs characterizes as the “Drifter-ish … Spanish soul” of the song, given a spare feel by producer Steve Jordan, “Mixed Up…” is a great fit for Scaggs’ 2013 vintage voice, which shares a similar register and inflection with DeVille’s. The synths of his ’70s albums thankfully shelved, the natural, organic sound of this new single harkens back to Scaggs’ soulful early efforts such as Moments and his self-titled, 1969 Muscle Shoals album.
Scaggs’ convincing return to his early ways of record-making and his dual tribute to his contemporary makes sense not only based on the results, but also in light of the significant parallels between he and Willy DeVille. Both grew up in the post-WWII America that gave birth to youth culture as we know it today, both beginning east of the Mississippi before winding up in San Francisco in the late ’60s-early ’70s. There, Scaggs reunited with an early bandmate to make what some regard the best of the Steve Miller Band albums, and DeVille assembled the aforementioned DeSade/Marquis combo.
Throughout their lives, the two singers made many of the same professional moves, at various stages of their lives. Whereas Scaggs spent just a year with Miller’s band, DeVille made a total of six albums (all recommended) over eight years with the Minks. The distinction between DeVille the man and the band became increasingly irrelevant, as Willy contributed most of the band’s material as well as exemplifying its persona. By the time of the 1980 album, Le Chat Bleu, DeVille had relocated to Paris, was collaborating with legendary songwriter Doc Pomus, and had released the masterful, Piaf-esque, “Heaven Stood Still,” a composition and performance that had all the makings of a standard for the ages.
Instead, the album—and its centerpiece track—became another of a string of DeVille albums that sold well in Europe, but did not initially see domestic release in the U.S. at all. Meanwhile, Scaggs had already tested the foreign waters, recording a solo album in Sweden in the mid-’60s, before his Steve Miller Band tenure (and preceding that group’s enormous, inexplicable success). The two singers shared not only struggles breaking through in the States as solo acts, both also made several fine records with storied producers: Scaggs with Glynn Johns, DeVille with Jack Nitzsche, who declared DeVille to be the best singer he’d ever worked with.
During the 1976-1980 span when Silk Degrees, Down Two Then Left, and Middle Man went platinum for Boz Scaggs, Willy DeVille continued making exceptional music in obscurity. By 1981, Willy was the only original member left in Mink DeVille, although he continued using the band name until 1987.
That year saw the release of Miracle, produced by Mark Knopfler (who also played all the guitar on the album, other than one track featuring Chet Atkins), and what would be DeVille’s last chance at major recognition and chart success. When Knopfler was tapped to contribute the soundtrack to Rob Reiner’s film, The Princess Bride, he used the Miracle track, “Storybook Love” as the score’s closing theme. Eventually a durable cult success, the film did only modest BO, with commensurate soundtrack sales. Although “Storybook Love” garnered an Academy Award nomination for best original song, and DeVille was showcased performing it on the Oscar telecast, neither the song nor the Miracle album even dented the U.S. charts.
Had only a few things gone slightly differently, it could have been William Borsey whose new album will soon compete with the “Sweet-Smelling Cyprus” of Stephan Micus. At least the one of the Williams we’ve still got has decided to return to making records the way he used to. In the process, if Boz Scaggs brings some overdue attention to the departed soul sensation known as Willy DeVille, even better.
Willy DeVille Photo Credit: music.yahoo.com