[DAPR/Zuma Press - Willy DeVille inspired British pop invaders Tears for Fears and Culture Club]
British teens in the late '70s grasped the importance of singer-songwriter Willy DeVille way before the pierced rockers at New York's CBGB or Max's Kansas City. Mr. DeVille's originals were intricate mashes of blues, soul and rock, and he struck an emotional chord with the English, who identified with his hypnotic melodies, lovesick lyrics and tortured stage persona.
Virtually forgotten today, Mr. DeVille—the late founder and frontman of the American punk-art band Mink DeVille—is now being reconsidered with the release Tuesday of "Come a Little Bit Closer: The Best of Willy DeVille Live" (Eagle Rock). As the 17-track CD demonstrates, Mr. DeVille was a composer and belter of enormous complexity.
Recorded between 1977 and 2005, the new compilation features live performances in Berlin, Montreux and the Netherlands. All of the remastered selections are breathtakingly contemporary and offer fresh insight into Mr. DeVille's gritty rock romanticism.
Mink DeVille recorded six albums between 1977 and 1985—including three produced by Wall of Sound mastermind Jack Nitzsche. After the original band broke up, Willy DeVille continued to perform and record with a backup group known as the Mink DeVille Band, attracting strong audience reaction in Europe. From 1987 on, he appeared as Willy DeVille.
In some respects, Mr. DeVille's music was too earnest and artsy for the States. Rail-thin, he often appeared with a thick pompadour, rat's-tail moustache and open shirt—the personification of a gigolo at a cheap resort. In later years, his look was given a Zorro-esque overhaul.
But there was creative heat and pain in Mr. DeVille's eerie, edgy look and sound. While his punk-roadhouse fusion sailed over the heads of many at home, his approach inspired many British pop invaders of the '80s, including Tears for Fears, Human League and Culture Club.
Born William Borsey Jr. in 1950 in Stamford, Conn., Mr. DeVille was a chronic collector of obscure R&B and rock records. After dropping out of high school, he moved to London for two years before returning to New York and the punk scene. He started Mink DeVille in San Francisco but relocated the band to New York in 1975, where it built its reputation.
Deep down, Mr. DeVille was a passionate collagist. His songs tastefully flicked at past references and artists such as Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and Ben E. King without ever lingering long enough to be considered derivative or retro.
For example, "Little Girl" on the new CD incorporates motifs from The Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk" and Arthur Alexander's "Anna (Go to Him)." On "Venus of Avenue D," there are hints of the Temptations' "My Girl" bass line blended with riffs from Fats Domino's "Little School Girl."
On "This Must Be the Night," his vocal soars with growls but then it dips down for a gospel confessional on "Storybook Love," which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1987 as the theme to "The Princess Bride."
Perhaps Mr. DeVille's best-remembered song is the haunting "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl." And his Tex-Mex barn-burners "Demasiado Corazon" and "Spanish Stroll" go so far as to incorporate doo-wop and Dylanesque folk touches. Also on this collection is a muscle-bound version of "Slow Drain," one of Mr. Deville's most dynamic and experimental recordings.
A onetime heroin addict, Mr. DeVille died at age 58 in 2009 from pancreatic cancer. As this new album makes clear, he was a punk eclectic with a heart of golden oldies and Joe Cocker's pipes. A seedy sophisticate, Mr. DeVille was decades ahead of his time, and on this new CD, his music still gleams like old chrome.
[By MARC MYERS / source: Wall Street Journal|A&E]