Looking back on the turning point of the CBGB legend’s career
Mink DeVille was something entirely different, even by the tawdry standards of CBGB and the notorious NYC Bowery district it was located in.
The band’s unique blend of roots-rock ‘n’ roll and old-school blues and soul had little in common with new wavers like Blondie and Television, but was nevertheless accepted by CBGB’s rowdy patrons. For almost three years, from 1975 to ‘77, Mink DeVille was one of the club’s house bands, subsiding on less than minimum wage. Of their tenure at the legendary venue, frontman Willy DeVille stated in a 2006 interview that “we didn’t get paid more than fifty bucks a night.”
The band’s roots were in San Francisco, where East Coast transplant Billy Borsay was singing with a group called Billy de Sade and the Marquis. The band changed its name to Mink DeVille in 1975, with the frontman adopting the nom de plume “Willy DeVille.” Seeing an ad in The Village Voice looking for bands to audition for a local NYC club, the singer convinced half of Mink DeVille – bassist Rubén Sigüenza and drummer Thomas “Manfred” Allen, Jr. – to accompany him to the ‘Big Apple’. Adding guitarist Louis X. Erlanger, whose knowledge of the blues fit with DeVille’s sensibilities, the band scored the CBGB gig.
Mink DeVille contributed three songs to the 1976 compilation album Live At CBGB’s, which helped get them a deal with Capitol Records. Teamed up with noted producer (and Phil Spector apprentice) Jack Nitzsche, the band released Cabretta in 1976 (the album was titled Mink DeVille in the U.S.). They followed it up with 1978’s Return To Magenta, a similar collection of rock, soul, blues, and Latin rhythms that featured Dr. John on piano. The band found a fan and supporter in legendary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame songwriter Doc Pomus, who contributed his perspective on Mink DeVille for the album’s liner notes:
“Mink DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow – timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quit for a minute…”
For Mink DeVille’s third album, 1980’s Le Chat Bleu, Willy fired all of the band members, except for guitarist Erlanger, and enlisted the Elvis Presley rhythm section of bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Ron Tutt to record in Paris. DeVille wrote several songs with Pomus for the album, which incorporated Louisiana-styled Cajun music into its classic rock sound, horrifying Capitol Records execs, who thought that they had signed a “new wave” band, not some sort of French-speaking Brill Building mutant. Feeling that American audiences wouldn’t accept rock music with accordions, Capitol shelved the album for a year, finally releasing it to widespread critical acclaim in the European market. Then they also showed Mink DeVille the door…
By the time that Mink DeVille released 1981’s Coup de Grâce album, the frontman was the only original band member left, pursuing his eclectic musical vision exclusively on subsequent albums like Where Angels Fear To Tread (1983) and Sportin’ Life (1985), which was recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama with guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood, and drummer Roger Hawkins. DeVille wrote more songs with Pomus, and produced the album himself for Polydor Records, but when it went nowhere, he decided to reassess his career.
In 1986, DeVille fired his personal manager, filed for bankruptcy, ditched the Mink DeVille band name, and launched a solo career as Willy DeVille. Miracle was DeVille’s solo debut; released in October 1987, it would provide a turning point to DeVille’s career, if not his fortunes. Produced in London by Dire Straits’ guitarist Mark Knopfler, Miracle also featured Dire Straits’ keyboardist Guy Fletcher along with bassist Mickey Feat and drummer Jamie Lane. DeVille wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s ten songs, penning “Spanish Jack” with Knopfler and covering Van Morrison’s “Could You Would You?”
According to a 2006 interview DeVille gave to the Leap In The Dark blog’s Richard Marcus, the project was the idea of Knopfler’s wife Lourdes. Recalls DeVille, “She said to him, ‘You don’t sing like Willy, and he doesn’t play guitar like you, but you really like his stuff so why don’t you do an album together?’” Knopfler brought a softer focus to DeVille’s material, removing a lot of the Bowery grit and showcasing DeVille’s skills as an old-school pop and soul singer like his idols Sam Cooke and Ben E. King.
For his part, DeVille delivered a fairly strong set of songs, the singer telling Sounds magazine’s Russell Young in a 1988 interview, “this is the first album where I had left-overs. The doggy bag! I got good stuff off the record – 22 songs! I wrote and wrote … it was a cakewalk. It was so easy.”
Still, Miracle opens with the lyrically-confusing “(Due To) Gun Control”, an oddly new wavish tune with contradicting verses. Is Willy pro- or anti-gun? It’s hard to tell from the lyrics, which are delivered atop a staggering, sweating, cacophonic blend of screaming guitar and syncopated rhythms. The singer acquits himself nicely with Morrison’s “Could You Would You”, imbuing the song with a reverent sort of Drifters soulfulness that DeVille cut his teeth on growing up in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City. Knopfler adds nuanced, trembling fretwork to accent DeVille’s vocals.
“Heart and Soul” is one of several true gems on Miracle, a hauntingly beautiful romantic song with brilliant poetic imagery and Latin flavor courtesy of Knopfler and guest Chet Atkins’ Spanish-styled filigree guitar strum. DeVille soft-peddles his vocals; rather than shouting at the moon, he’s crooning ‘amore’ and imbuing the song with passion and emotion. “Assassin of Love” is in a similar vein, more mid-tempo than a ballad, with imaginative lyrics, soulful vox, and understated rhythms, with Knopfler’s subtle guitar washes hovering above the performance. The song was used on the soundtrack of the 1989 British film The Rachel Papers, which raised DeVille’s profile in the U.K. and earned the singer new fans, including U2, who played the song during soundchecks on their 2009 world tour.
The DeVille/Knopfler co-write “Spanish Jack” is a cool story-song in the vein of Bob Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’, but with smarter, street-savvy lyrics and minimalist instrumentation that strips the trademark Dire Straits sound down to a barely-audible buzz. DeVille’s words are the nazz, too, with lines like “if you’re gonna play a game of cards, be sure with who you’re gambling, this game of chance you can never win, if Spanish Jack is at the table” that draw inspiration (if more than a little plot) from the blues standard “Stagger Lee”. The title track is a low-key Dire Straits knock-off with harmony vocals and mid-tempo rhythms, but DeVille still manages to bring a modicum of heart to the otherwise trifling tune with his engaging vocals.
Much better is “Angel Eyes”, an up-tempo, Latin-tinged song that evokes songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Spanish Harlem” (a solo hit for former Drifters’ singer King). Knopfler brings a deft hand to his fanciful guitar licks, the rhythm section establishes a foot-shuffling groove, and DeVille brings the vocal magic with what is his second best performance on Miracle. “Nightfall” offers another gorgeous, ethereal performance with Knopfler’s ambient guitar vibe underlining DeVille’s tragically-romantic lyrics and heartbreak vocals. The largely spoken-sung “Southern Politician” is an outlier on Miracle, its lyrics teaming with social commentary and satiric criticism delivered above Knopfler’s fractured, jagged guitar lines.
The most famous – and best – song on Miracle is DeVille’s “Storybook Love”. Later used by Knopfler on the soundtrack to the 1987 film The Princess Bride, it was the perfect match of words, performance, and feeling as the song plays over the movie’s closing credits. “Storybook Love” is the culmination of DeVille’s love of early rock ‘n’ roll, writers like Doc Pomus, and the 1950s-era teenage love songs he grew up with. Relying almost entirely on DeVille’s angelic vocals, Knopfler wisely provides the barest of reverent soundtracks behind his singer, a symphonic hum that sounds more like a hymn than a love song. When DeVille croons “my love is like a storybook story, but it’s as real as the feelings I feel,” the emotion is palatably felt drifting from your speakers and into your soul.
VIDEO: Mark Knopfler& Willy DeVille “Storybook Love”
“Storybook Love” was nominated for an Academy Award, and DeVille performed on the awards’ TV broadcast, which should have launched his career into the stratosphere. But DeVille’s eclectic musical tastes, his struggle with addiction, and personal tragedies would derail the singer time and again. DeVille literally roamed the world, making music, throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Regardless, Miracle provided an auspicious beginning to DeVille’s solo career, which continued along its erratic path until his too-young death from cancer in 2009 at 58 years old. The singer released ten solo albums over the course of his solo career, culminating in 2008’s wonderful Pistola.
Even if he was relatively unknown stateside, DeVille retained a loyal European audience, and wrote and recorded with many of his childhood idols. Producer Jack Nitzsche considered DeVille to be the best singer he’d ever worked with, and Bob Dylan has advocated for his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, stating in a 2015 interview that “his voice and presentation ought to have gotten him in there by now.” Critic Thom Jurek wrote of DeVille in All Music Guide that “his catalog is more diverse than virtually any other modern performer … 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.”
Willy DeVille fan and musical collaborator Mark Knopfler, who helped the singer launch his solo career with Miracle, probably says it best, though. Quoted by the Leap In The Dark blog in 2009, Knopfler said “I’ve been an admirer of Willy’s since hearing his stunning voice on the radio for the first time … the songs he writes are original, often romantic and always straight from the heart. He can paint a character in a few words. When we worked on his Miracle album I enjoyed the occasional opportunity to offer a chord or two to go with his great lyrics.”
Three and a half decades after its release, Miracle remains a classic of American music, an often-overlooked melting pot of musical styles that could only be created by a larger-than-life talent like Willy DeVille.
VIDEO: Willy DeVille “Miracle”