This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
In spite of his music suggesting a New Orleans origin, Willy DeVille was born as William Borsey in Stamford, Connecticut. He said he was “A little of this and a little of that; a real street dog,” having Basque, Irish and Pequot among his ancestors.
He eventually relocated to New Orleans for a time where he found a musical home.
Willy’s most famous band before he went solo was Mink DeVille. Willy formed this band in San Francisco from the remnants of other groups. They used to play in leather bars on Folsom Street for a while as Billy de Sade and the Marquis.
They changed their name to Mink DeVille and hightailed it to New York where they took up residency at CBGBs, a club that featured punk bands. I’ve always been a bit wary of this categorization. Okay, The Ramones would fit in but I don’t see Blondie as a punk band. Neither was Mink DeVille as far as I’m concerned.
They were the most interesting group who came out of the club and were the house band there for several years. Later Willy had a somewhat successful solo career but he had more of a cult following than general popularity.
Unfortunately Willy died in 2009 just a few days short of turning 59, thus he didn’t even rate as a real elder musician. He died from pancreatic cancer.
Willy was taken with the R&B sound of the fifties, particularly groups like The Drifters. He would later write songs with Doc Pomus who wrote a lot of the songs from the time.
An example of this style is the early MINK DEVILLE track, Just To Walk That Little Girl Home.
Two hits brought Willy some public recognition with Mink DeVille, particularly in Europe.
The first of these is Spanish Stroll, where they seem to be channeling the Velvet Underground, if the Velvets performed in Spanish.
The second hit was Cadillac Walk.
Apart from Willy, the members of Mink DeVille kept turning over. Eventually he just recorded under his own name.
As I mentioned earlier, his style seemed to suggest he'd be happy in New Orleans and so it proved. With soulful singing with Latin rhythms mixed with New Orleans R&B style, he was one of a kind.
He recorded several albums in the city. For the first of them, "Victory Mixture," he recruited the artists who put the city's R&B style of music on the map. Such musicians as Earl King, Dr John, Eddie Bo and Allen Toussaint. Here they all are with Every Dog Has Its Day.
This next song is the most blatant paean to drugs, heroin in particular, I think I've heard in a popular song except maybe Lou Reed's song about the drug.
It was written by Champion Jack Dupree and you can hear Jack's version in Elder Music 1941 but Willy took it several steps further on. He knew a thing or two about what he was singing. The song is Junker's Blues.
For a complete contrast to the previous song, we have another from one of his New Orleans' sessions. This one is Who Shot the La-La.
From the final album as Mink Deville ("Sportin' Life") we get the song Something Beautiful Dying. Willy wrote several songs (including this one) with legendary songwriter Doc Pomus, who had become a good friend by this stage.
The album was recorded at the famed Muscle Shoals studio and Willy used the great session musicians attached to that studio rather than his band. That probably contributed to the demise of the band.
Back to nearly the beginning, from the second album from Mink DeVille, we have I Broke That Promise.
This was the last album that featured the original members of the band. It was only their second album so the turn-over was considerable.
A rather unexpected singer turns up next to perform a duet with Willy, and she is BRENDA LEE.
Okay, when she recorded the song, Brenda was a bit older than she appears in that photo. I just threw that one in because I can. The song is You’ll Never Know, from his fine album, "Loup Garou.”
From the album “Horse of a Different Color,” here’s his version of Across the Borderline. I think a column could be done using all the great versions of this song; when I’ve run out of other things to do maybe.
The song was written by John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and Jim Dickinson.