We lost another great one Friday morning, as pancreatic cancer claimed the life of Willy DeVille, just two weeks shy of his birthday. Earlier this year he was diagnosed with Hepatitis, and in June as doctors were preparing to treat him, it was discovered that he had cancer. Sadly, the reaper was swift and unforgiving…but wherever we land after we flee this mortal coil, know that they’re all doing the Spanish Stroll today.
Though never a huge star here in America, he was one of the most consistently engaging perormers and vocalists of the past three decades plus, and universally respected and admired by his fellow musicians and artists. I first encountered Willy with his band Mink DeVille, who ripped through the punk/New Wave era with a special streetwise intensity and worldly flavor that set them apart from their contemporaries. Poet, punk, pirate; impossible to pin down or predict.
He didn’t spit from the stage or dress in rags or flaunt the inability to play an instrument…in an almost inverse direction he dressed sharp, played tight and tackled a truckload of styles with his music. Folk, doo-wop, rock, Tex-Mex, Cajun, blues, soul, Latin, garage, r&b, punk…I’d be hard pressed to find a genre that wasn’t in there somewhere. Europe got it – they always do – but aside from having his song featured in The Princess Bride (and nominated for an Academy Award) it’s quite possible that most Americans have never heard of him, let alone heard him. A shameful omission, if so.
Producer Jack Nitszche immediately saw the talent and produced the first two albums with a hard, street-tough edge. “Venus of Avenue D”, “Gunslinger” and “Spanish Stroll” are thoroughly visual songs that breathe the soul of a gritty New York City street, and it was immediately obvious that Willy was a first rate interpreter. On two well chosen covers, he made “Little Girl” (classic Brill Building sound from Barry/Greenwich/Spector) and Moon Martin‘s “Cadillac Walk” his own. “Mixed Up Shook Up Girl” showed his ability to find the soul in sadness, and throughout his career he’d mine the lonely and longing area of the heart in majestic fashion.
He soon abandoned the street pimp image, and as his career progressed and matured his image morphed to New Orleans hipster and eventually his Native American roots. A twenty year heroin jag left him frail and anemic looking at times, yet whatever pain he was feeling (or hiding) never ceased to emerge in his songs. Early on, his collaborations with Doc Pomus made Le Chat Blue a mesmerizing soulful album, and Coup De Grace featured brilliant anthems of the heart like “Maybe Tomorrow” and his cover of Arthur Alexander‘s classic “You Better Move On”. Sportin’ Life utilized the magic of the Muscle Shoals studios and musicians to continue the trend including the Springsteenish “I Must Be Dreaming”.
Performing “I Must Be Dreaming” on Letterman.
In recent years he continued to record wonderful albums but they hardly made a ripple in the States. Backstreets of Desire and Crow Jane Alley are standouts, and his recent DVD releases (including a brilliant performance at Montreaux) were a welcome reminder of his tremendous talent. Ironically I had just ordered his newest album Pistola when the news of his passing crossed my desk. I’ll listen to it with a heavy heart when it arrives. Adios, mi amigo – muchas gracias por todo.
Acoustic version of “You Better Move On”
Wikipedia page with a good career overview.
Willy DeVille website
The Willy DeVille MySpace site.
A 2006 interview courtesy AllMusic.com
Discography, including recent DVDs.