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.