August 6, 2009 – Willy DeVille was born William Paul Borsey Jr. on August 25th 1950 in Stamford, Connecticut. The son of a carpenter, he grew up in the working-class Belltown district of Stamford.
DeVille said about Stamford, “It was post-industrial. Everybody worked in factories, you know. Not me. I wouldn’t have that. People from Stamford don’t get too far. That’s a place where you die.” DeVille said about his youthful musical tastes, “I still remember listening to groups like the Drifters. It was like magic, there was drama, and it would hypnotise me.”
As a teenager, DeVille played with friends from Stamford in a blues band called Billy & the Kids, and later in another band called The Immaculate Conception. DeVille quit high school and began frequenting New York’s Lower East Side and West Village. “It seemed like I just hung out and hung out. I always wanted to play music but nobody really had it together then. They had psychedelic bands but that wasn’t my thing.”
In this period, DeVille’s interests ran to blues guitarists Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and especially John Hammond. “I think I owe a lot about my look, my image on stage, and my vocal riffs to John Hammond. A lot of my musical stance is from John,” Deville said. He credited Hammond’s 1965 album So Many Roads with “changing my life.”
At age 21, he married Susan Berle, also known as Toots (half French and half Pima Indian), and he adopted her son named Sean in 1970. DeVille struck out in 1971 for London in search of like-minded musicians (“obvious American with my Pompadour hair”), but was unsuccessful finding them; he returned to New York City after a two-year absence.
His next band, The Royal Pythons (“a gang that turned into a musical group”), was not a success either. Said DeVille: “I decided to go to San Francisco; there was nothing really happening in New York. Flower power was dead. All the day-glo paint was peeling off the walls. People were shooting speed. I mean, it was real Night of the Living Dead. So I bought a truck and headed out west. I traveled all around the country for a couple of years, looking for musicians who had heart, instead of playing 20-minute guitar solos, which is pure ego.”
Temporarily settling in San Francisco, he spent most of 1972 developing his stage persona in Bay Area clubs. Returning to New York, DeVille was in the right place at the right time. Forming a band, Billy DeSade & the Marquis, later renamed Mink DeVille, with bassist Ruben Siguenza and drummer T.R. “Manfred” Allen Jr., he found his roots-oriented rock welcome in the city’s burgeoning punk scene. When the independent Omfug label included three of their songs on the multi-artist compilation Live at CBGB’s, recorded at the influential New York punk club, their punk connection was assured. With Atlantic acquiring national distribution rights to the album, Mink DeVille became one of the country’s top punk bands. MinkdeVille was the houseband for CBGB’s for three years (1975-1977). With Mink DeVille he recorded six albums in the years between 1977 to 1985.
Willy DeVille remained active following the breakup of Mink DeVille in the mid-’80s. His debut solo album, Miracle, was produced in 1987 by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and included such guests as guitarist Chet Atkins. One tune, “Storybook Love,” used in Knopfler’s score for the film The Princess Bride, was nominated for an Academy Award.
Residing in New Orleans after the early ’90s, DeVille featured the city’s leading musicians, including Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Doc Pomus and Eddie Bo, on his 1990 album, Victory Mixture. New Orleans-style Latin rhythms, blues riffs, doo-wop, Cajun music, strains of French cabaret, and echoes of early-1960s uptown soul remained essential on his 1996 albums Big Easy Fantasy and Loup Garou. In the summer of 1992, he toured Europe with Dr John, Johnny Adams, Zachary Richard, and The Wild Magnolias as part of his “New Orleans Revue” tour.
Subsequent releases focused on DeVille’s live shows. Released in 2001, Live combined performances from the Bottom Line in New York and the Olympia Club in Paris. Acoustic Trio in Berlin, released two years later, featured the accompaniment of Seth Farber (piano, background vocals), Boris Kinberg (percussion), Freddy Koella (guitar, mandolin, vocals), David Keyes (bass, background vocals), and YaDonna Wise (background vocals).
In 2003 DeVille returned to New York, and during the following years he continued sporadic touring (predominately in Europe), and released the album Pistola in 2008. Willy DeVille died of pancreatic cancer in New York City in August 2009 at 58 years of age.
About his legacy, DeVille told an interviewer,
“I have a theory. I know that I’ll sell much more records when I’m dead. It isn’t very pleasant, but I have to get used to this idea.”
• Jack Nitzsche said that DeVille was the best singer he had ever worked with.
• Critic Robert Palmer wrote about him in 1980, “Mr. DeVille is a magnetic performer, but his macho stage presence camouflages an acute musical intelligence; his songs and arrangements are rich in ethnic rhythms and blues echoes, the most disparate stylistic references, yet they flow seamlessly and hang together solidly. He embodies (New York’s) tangle of cultural contradictions while making music that’s both idiomatic, in the broadest sense, and utterly original.”
• In a 2015 interview, Bob Dylan suggested DeVille should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Said Dylan, “(DeVille) stood out, his voice and presentation ought to have gotten him in there by now.”
• His sometime collaborator Mark Knopfler said of DeVille, “Willy had an enormous range. The songs he wrote were original, romantic and straight from the heart.”
• Critic Thom Jurek said about him, “His catalog is more diverse than virtually any other modern performer. The genre span of the songs he’s written is staggering. From early rock and rhythm and blues styles, to Delta-styled blues, from Cajun music to New Orleans second line, from Latin-tinged folk to punky salseros, to elegant orchestral ballads—few people could write a love song like DeVille. He was the embodiment of rock and roll’s romance, its theater, its style, its drama, camp, and danger.”
Thom Jurek wrote about him after his death, “Willy Deville is America’s loss even if America doesn’t know it yet. The reason is simple: Like the very best rock and roll writers and performers in our history, he’s one of the very few who got it right; he understood what made a three-minute song great, and why it mattered—because it mattered to him. He lived and died with the audience in his shows, and he gave them something to remember when they left the theater, because he meant every single word of every song as he performed it. Europeans like that. In this jingoistic age of American pride, perhaps we can revisit our own true love of rock and roll by discovering Willy DeVille for the first time—or, at the very least, remember him for what he really was: an American original. The mythos and pathos in his songs, his voice, and his performances were born in these streets and cities and then given to the world who appreciated him much more than we did.”
• Singer Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band said about him, “He had all the roots of music that I love and had this whole street thing of R&B — just the whole gestalt… He was just a tremendous talent; a true artist in the sense that he never compromised. He had a special vision and remained true to it.”
• Writing in the Wall Street Journal about the posthumous release of DeVille’s Come a Little Bit Closer: The Best of Willy DeVille Live (2011), Marc Meyers declared, “There was creative heat and pain in Mr. DeVille’s eerie, edgy look and sound. While his punk-roadhouse fusion sailed over the heads of many at home, his approach inspired many British pop invaders of the 1980s, including Tears for Fears, Human League and Culture Club… He was a punk eclectic with a heart of golden oldies and Joe Cocker’s pipes. A seedy sophisticate, Mr. DeVille was decades ahead of his time.”