Mink DeVille often seemed to be the odd men out at New York’s punk mecca, CBGB‘s, in the mid-1970s. They headlined with Television, Blondie and Talking Heads, but their rock ‘n’ soul music was a post-Brill Building blend of American gumbo: New Orleans funk, Latin salsa, Zydeco and doo-wop.
At first, the band (originally formed in San Francisco) was called Billy DeSade and the Marquis, and then The Lazy Eights.
Frontman Willy DeVille (aka Connecticut-born, Lower East Side-raised William Borsay) cut something of a 1950s figure, with his sharp suits and pointed Italian shoes topped off by a pencil moustache and the kind of pompadour Little Richard might gasp at.
DeVille’s gravel voice helped propel Spanish Stroll – from the Jack Nitzsche-produced debut LP, Cabretta – into the UK Top 20 in August 1977.
DeVille always claimed his one ambition was “to play music that would make the glasses dance on the bar” and, with Spanish Stroll, he achieved just that – an effervescent cocktail of Lou Reed and Ritchie Valens, with a Rock & Roll swagger Springsteen would die for.
Nitzsche stuck around for Return To Magenta (1978) before DeVille sacked all but one of his band (guitarist Louis X Erlanger) and decamped to Paris for his masterpiece Le Chat Bleu (1980).
His songwriting partner on a gorgeous record soaked in Cajun-style accordion, washboards and cabaret music was the mighty Doc Pomus, who observed, “DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song”.
The band playing on the album included Elvis Presley‘s last rhythm section (bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Ron Tutt).
Le Chat Bleu was a fine album, full of ballads and vivid string arrangements, but DeVille’s label was flabbergasted, refused to release the album and dropped the artist. Burgeoning import sales finally forced Capitol to change its mind, but DeVille had now signed to Atlantic.
DeVille battled heroin addiction in the 1980s, but his song Storybook Love – from the film The Princess Bride – was Oscar-nominated in 1987.
He moved to New Orleans and immersed himself in the city’s musical culture, and his 1990 album Victory Mixture was a loving celebration of New Orleans R&B, while Backstreets Of Desire (1992) contained a mariachi reworking of Hey Joe that topped the French and Spanish charts.
Recent albums – especially 2005’s Crow Jane Alley, seemed to confirm him as clean and creative once more, but sadly Willy DeVille died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. He was 58.
Willy DeVille (William Borsay)
Louis X Erlanger
Thomas “Manfred” Allen