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Willy DeVille: Rest In Peace

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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:

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark Richard Marcus

    Willy’s producer John Phillip Shenale, just contacted me and had this to say about Willy:
    “He left us, as he lived.
    Brilliant and eccentric , surrounded by love.
    I will deeply miss him.”

    Richard

  • mimi

    He was a friend – a warm, genuine, open and honest man – a true romantic and a brilliant artist… irreplacable – he will be missed…

  • bruce nutt

    Lucky enough to see Mink DiVille live in the middle seventies in Los Angeles, One of the greatest shows I have ever seen, he was on fire and one of the great rhythm and blues troubadours to have ever lived. He was not as well known as many of his peers, but he stood at the very top of the mountain, as far as talent and having the ultimate cool.
    Willy DeVille was in a league of his own,
    true to his school, he was and is amazing.
    Bruce Nutt
    Crazy Mamas Concerts

  • henri moll

    A shock entered the lowlands…
    Bon voyage my true friend, your life was a true search.

  • cournazaclady

    loved your songs,your voice,your elegance, your horses and will always do.Thanks amigo

  • Garth Cartwright

    Fine piece, Richard. I got the opportunity to interview Willy in Paris in 2005. Tried to sell it to Mojo and Uncut but neither even replied – Willy has been written out of Anglo rock history, partly though his own bad behaviour a long time ago and then the odd sleight of fortune that made him a star on the Continent yet forgotten in the US and UK. I’ve a book out in October on American music – Willy only gets into the discography – but I’m determined to write one using that interview in the future. Perhaps the only good thing about his death is that it may lead to a reevaluation of his talent in UK/US – consider how the likes of his CBGBs contempoaries David Byrne and Debbie Harry and co have not recorded anything of note for decades yet Willy’s last 5 albums were all excellent. A hugely underrated talent.

  • David Pfenninger

    Yes, the loss of a really first-rate singer and performer. He’d be in the songewriter hall of fame if he was famous. Please visit the site Willy DeVille Music from time to time to see if there are any further announcements from Nina.

  • roxy

    I am a fan a person who loves music. Willy and any band members he played with,any style of music he choose to entertain us with,were perfection. One time his performance was just throwing up. He performed,but without music it’s a story. He was a true artist. I never spoke to him but he spoke volumes to me I will always be grateful love you Willy RIP

  • roberta bethencourt

    There will never be anyone like Willy Deville. His voice, his music, his coolness, will surely be missed. Hope he is jamming with some of the other greats up in heaven now.

  • http://blogs.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/sundaysurfer/index.php STM

    Sad news.

    While I love most of his music, I was listening to White Trash Girl a few weeks back, and my 14-year-old asked: “Hey, who’s that … that’s a cool song!”.

    My son (22) also thinks that song sounds “a bit like the Ramones” and has since downloaded all my De Ville stuff to his iPod.

    Everything old is new again …

    A pretty cool dude, was Willy.

  • Tony Sylvester

    Willy just oozed New York City cool. I have been enjoying his art since the the 70′s. His passion, soul and honestly always moved me. There was no one quite like him. RIP Willy you will you greatly missed.

  • sam hubbell

    I have been a working musician the vast majority of my life. The notes I play or feelings emoted are steeped in his most inflential brew of passion, truth, body and soul. “Willy You live forever”. In every Dive bar, Juke Joint, Hot club, Cabaret and Concert hall. In every human heart touched or broken.

  • chaz

    I’ve been a fan of Willy’s music since the mid 70′s and was shocked to hear of his sudden passing. Thank you for a wonderful piece Richard. I’m going to listen to a little Willy now,… may he rest in peace.

  • SpanishStroll

    I’m heartbroken. Thanks Richard for your interviews and coverage of Willy DeVille over the years (I’ve been writing Wikipedia articles about him). He was a superb poet and musician. I always hoped he’d make it to San Francisco again so I could see him, but alas it won’t happen now. It’s amazing to me that he kept pushing the boundaries right up to his last album (“Mountain of Manhattan” was wholly original). I’d love to read a book about him.

  • Ellen Monasso

    What a wonderful, moving article mr. Marcus, thank you very much!

    A fan from Holland

  • michael fogg

    Very moving tribute Richard, i am glad i finally conquered my fear of flying and went to see him in Amsterdam on his last tour
    A fan in England

  • MS. F. M. SALDANHA

    I MET WILLY IN 1977, THE YEAR OF HIS MASSIVE HIT SPANISH STROLL IN THE U.K. (HE WAS A VERY GOOD FRIEND OF MY PARTNER). I EVEN TRAVELLED WITH HIM AND TOOTS TO THE HAMMERSMITH ODEON FOR ONE OF HIS PERFORMANCES, AND ATTENDED THE CAPITOL RECORD RECEPTION FOR HIM AT MR. CHOW’S RESTAURANT IN KNIGHTSBRIDGE. I FEEL TOO SAD TO PLAY HIS MUSIC. IT REMINDS ME BOTH OF MY PARTNER WHO DIED AGED 53 IN 2002 AND OF WILLY. ONCE YOU HAD MET WILLY YOU JUST COULD NOT FORGET HIM. WILLY DYING IS JUST THE SADDEST OF SAD THINGS. REST IN PEACE WILLY.

  • ron guscott

    been listening to wiily since the beginning…this will truly leave a huge void in my music taste,never to recover,this is truly the day the music died

  • T hartman

    I’ve always had a passion for music, and it was a common thing for me to listen to soundtraks and search out the artists. long before youtube, i would rent Princess Bride just to hear this song! to hear Willie DeVille sing “Storybook Love” live is truely a treat! RIP Willie!!

  • Linda

    Rest in peace musical genius!

  • mary-kai

    i was lucky enough to have seen him from the start of minkdeville-when i moved to nyc i’d see him around the neighborhood, always stylish. one time he was standing outside enelra lingerie shoppe looking in while his girl shopped inside. he was wearing a white tank tee, with pleated dress pants (black of course). i thought the same thing i did the first time i heard that voice—thank god he exists— in the backroom the boys talking about you say yeah— you’re the king, willie.

  • http://devillefans.blogspot.com/ WdVIF

    Richard, would you please contact us in connection with the WdV celebration show in New York August 23th. Edited

  • Daniel Sussman

    I used to bump into Willy eating dinner by himself in NY’s Little Italy. Always in the middle of night. What a voice… I just read this obit. Bravo. He deserves this fine praise.