At about 11:30 on the night of August 6, 2009 we lost one of the great voices of American music. At the age of 59, Willy DeVille has succumbed to pancreatic cancer. His death came as a shock to those who loved him and his music, for his diagnosis came only shortly before his death. Earlier this year Willy had informed his fans that he would be having to take some time off from performing and recording as he was having to undergo treatment for hepatitis C, but in May of 2009 the doctors discovered that he had stage IV pancreatic cancer.
Born on August 25, 1950 as William Borsey, he changed his to name to DeVille with the formation of the band that propelled him to international renown — The Mink DeVille Band. When asked about the genesis of the band's name in an interview Willy replied that the band had been sitting around talking of names when one of the guys said, "How about Mink DeVille? There can't be anything cooler than a fur-lined Cadillac, can there?"
While the band was put together in San Francisco, it was in New York they caught fire. In 1975 CBGB was one of the few clubs hiring live rock and roll bands so along with hundreds of others, Willy and the band auditioned and the roller coaster began.
While most of us associate CBGB with the early days of punk rock — the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, and Blondie — Mink DeVille were playing the type of music that Willy had first fallen in love with as a kid listening to the radio around the breakfast table — the rock and roll and R&B of the early '60s that was big on American Bandstand. Willy described listening to bands like the Drifters as being a magical experience and how the drama of it would hypnotize him..
No matter that they were formed in San Francisco, you'd never think of Mink DeVille as anything but a New York City band. The Latin beats came from the lower East Side and their cool was that of the street. While everybody else was in ripped t-shirts and jeans, Willy was even then developing the elegance and grace that would become the hallmarks of his stage presence throughout his career. It was one of those happy accidents that can only be put down to destiny that he and Jack Nietzsche were brought together for his first album with Capital records. It was Jack who had been involved with so much of the music that Willy had loved as a kid. Cabretta, released in 1977, was the first indication of the unique talents hidden within Willy as it showed him equally comfortable singing R&B, Latin, rock, and blues. Nobody before or since Willy has been able to blend the diverse elements of American popular music into one sound with such authenticity, soul, and passion.
Unfortunately nobody has ever known what to do with that sound once it was pressed onto wax. Even back in the early days Willy remembered Nietzsche saying that he never understood why Capitol signed Mink DeVille as they were the label of safe bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys. There's no need to look further than Willy's lack of recognition is his own country to see how screwed up the music business in North America is. Here's someone who is the quintessence of American music, yet his last CD, Pistola, wasn't even released domestically and Crow Jane Alley, released prior to that, only had 500 made for domestic release.
The most recognition Willy ever received in his home country was a nomination for an Academy Award for his song "Storybook Love" from the album Miracle that he made with Mark Knopfler. The album itself came about because of a suggestion made by Knopfler's wife at the time, Lourdes. According to Willy, she had said to Mark, "You really like Willy's stuff, so why don't you make an album with him?" When Willy got to London he was playing Knopfler some of the songs he wanted to record and when Knopfler heard "Storybook Love", he asked Willy how he had found out that he was doing the soundtrack for Princess Bride as Willy had just written a song perfect for it. They sent director Rob Reiner a rough copy of the song and he loved it. This quote from Knopfler sums up his appreciation of Willy's work: