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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:

I've been an admirer of Willy's since hearing his stunning voice on the radio for the first time. He has an enormous range, with influences from all corners of the country, from Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and New Orleans music to Latin, folk-rock, doo-wop, Ben E. King style soul and R&B – all part of the New York mix.  The songs he writes are original, often romantic and always straight from the heart.  He can paint a character in a few words.  When we worked on his Miracle album I enjoyed the occasional opportunity to offer a chord or two to go with his great lyrics.

While Willy may not have ever been properly appreciated in North America during his lifetime, he was adored in Europe where he was appreciated for his artistry and diversity. We have our flavours of the minute and we celebrate stardom, not talent or passion. In that kind of environment there was no room for an artist of the calibre of Willy DeVille. Like any artist Willy wasn't satisfied with doing the same thing over and over and again – what painter would want to paint the same painting repeatedly? – and was always experimenting with different styles of music and presentation. But in the cookie cutter environment of North American popular music originality is looked upon as only slightly less a sin than honesty and integrity, both of which Willy also happened to be cursed with.

All told, either as himself or under the Mink DeVille banner, Willy released 16 albums, and 14 compilation packages of his material were also released over the years. He also appeared on tribute albums for people ranging from Edith Piaf to Johnny Thunders, and two other film scores aside from Princess Bride — Cruising and Death Proof. All this in spite of the fact that he went a good chunk of the 1990s without a record contract. Most people, when faced with the type of career adversity he's had, on top of the troubles he faced at times in his personal life, would have thrown in the towel long ago. However, as anybody who knew him will attest, Willy wasn't most people.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to talk with Willy on two occasions, and each time I was impressed by both his love for what he did and his warmth as a human being. We talked for hours each time about his music, but also about the common struggle we had shared with addictions. His compassion and heart were boundless, and in spite of the troubles he had in his life – finding his second wife when she had committed suicide – he still found time for others and their problems. A friend of his recounted to me how she and her husband coached a young man who had lost his arms and legs in singing as he had been chosen as the Variety Club poster child. The young man had wanted to sing one of Willy's song for The Variety Club Telethon and had needed to supply sheet music for the event. Not only did Willy arrange for his bass player at the time to write out a score for the song (Willy was living in New Orleans at the time and the young man was in New York City), but when the young man came to see Willy playing at the Bitter End the next time he was in New York, Willy spent two hours talking with him after the show.

There aren't many people who I've come into contact with in the past few years of reviewing and interviewing music who I can honestly say have had the same effect on me as Willy did. It was something about the way he talked about his art, his music, that was genuinely inspiring. I'm not a musician, but talking to him rekindled my own passion for writing and to always push myself as much as possible. In the acknowledgments to my book being published this fall I wrote. "Over the course of two very long and wide-ranging conversations Willy DeVille taught me what the word passion really meant…" and that's a gift he gave me that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life. I'll not only miss his music, but I'll miss him – it's hard to believe that I'll not hear his voice coming down my phone wire ever again or that I won't have the opportunity to go and meet him and his wife Nina for a coffee in New York like we talked about.

Willy loved what he did, especially performing, and in his description of how that made him feel you can begin to hear something of the passion he felt and exuded.

There's this feeling you get of absolute silence when you know that the crowd are listening and that silence is louder than anything else I've ever heard in my life. Those are my moments of absolute bliss and I feel sorry for people who can't feel those moments of euphoria. But in order to feel passion you have to be passionate about something in the first place. For me that's music.

A distinctly American voice has gone silent and we are greatly reduced by its sudden quiet. We're not likely to hear his kind again and those of us who have heard it will not soon forget it.

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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.
  • 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.

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

  • 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.

  • Linda

    Rest in peace musical genius!

  • 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!!

  • 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



  • 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

  • Ellen Monasso

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

    A fan from Holland

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • cournazaclady

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

  • henri moll

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

  • 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

  • mimi

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

  • 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.”