Monday, July 19, 2010

Remembering Willy DeVille.

Willy DeVille, a singer and songwriter and the leader of the group Mink DeVille, whose adventurous forays into rhythm and blues, Cajun music and salsa made him one of the most original figures of the New York punk scene of the 1970s, died on August 6, in Manhattan. He was 58.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his publicist, Carol Kaye.
Mr. DeVille, a regular at CBGB in the mid-1970s, lent his bluesy voice and eclectic musical tastes to Mink DeVille, one of the club’s main draws. A disciplined songwriter with a deep admiration for the Atlantic Records sound of the Drifters and Ben E. King, he drew from many sources, including Latin music, French ballads, New Orleans funk and Cajun accordion music. He was, the critic Robert Palmer wrote in The New York Times in 1980, “idiomatic, in the broadest sense, and utterly original.”

Mr. DeVille was born William Borsey in Stamford, Conn. After dropping out of school at 16, he began spending time in Greenwich Village and on the Lower East Side, where he learned to play the guitar and began performing, affecting a blues style like that of John Hammond Jr. He played with several groups before assembling Mink DeVille on a trip to San Francisco. He brought it to New York in 1975.

Mink DeVille, frequently lumped in with its fellow headliners Blondie, Television and Talking Heads, was essentially a soul band with roots in the commercial songwriting traditions of the Brill Building. Onstage Mr. DeVille cut a dapper figure. A pencil mustache and sculptured pompadour complemented his suits and pointy Italian shoes.

Working with Jack Nitzsche, a producer associated with Phil Spector, the group recorded the album “Cabretta” in 1977 for Capitol Records. Two of its tracks, “Spanish Stroll” and Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk,” became minor hits. The group recorded two more albums with Mr. Nitzsche for Capitol, “Return to Magenta,” which employed shimmering string arrangements reminiscent of the Drifters on several tracks, and the oddly romantic, highly eclectic “Le Chat Bleu.”

“Le Chat Bleu,” recorded in Paris without most of the original band members, baffled Capitol. It included French cabaret music, Cajun accordion melodies and songs written with Doc Pomus, one of the writers of “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Although the album sold well in Europe, Capitol shelved it, finally releasing it in 1980 to critical acclaim.

In a spiritual homecoming, Mr. DeVille signed with Atlantic Records after returning to the United States and recorded the soul-tinged “Coup de Grace” (1981), with Mr. Nitzsche as producer, and “Where Angels Fear to Tread” (1983). “Sportin’ Life” (1985), his last album under the Mink DeVille name, included “Italian Shoes,” a hit in Europe.

After 1985 Mr. Deville performed and recorded as Willy Deville, pursuing a path with unusual twists and turns. His song “Storybook Love,” from the album “Miracle” (1987), was used as the theme for “The Princess Bride” and was nominated for an Academy Award.

Relocating to New Orleans in 1988 reinforced a lifelong attraction to Cajun, zydeco and New Orleans rhythm and blues, a taste Mr. DeVille indulged in “Victory Mixture” (1990), a collaboration with New Orleans greats like Dr. John, Eddie Bo and Allen Toussaint, and in “Loup Garou” (1995).

The unpredictable Mr. DeVille recorded a startling mariachi version of the Jimi Hendrix hit “Hey Joe” on “Backstreets of Desire” (1992) and turned to Southern traditional music and blues on “Horse of a Different Color” (1999). He later toured and recorded live as part of an acoustic trio. After living in New Mexico for several years, he returned to New York in 2003.

Mr. DeVille’s first two wives died. He is survived by his third wife, Nina; a son, Sean; and a sister, Mimi, who lives in Australia.

from The New York Times, August 7 2009.

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