“I was never really in it for the money,or the coke or the chicks, I was in it for the art...when you are a musician you have this passion in you and this hunger in you, not to be famous, but to be on stage to express yourself,” Willy DeVille.
As a musician, Willy DeVille combined many styles and genres of music together to make a sound that was uniquely his own. His vocals were profound in each song, and stood out as an instrument in itself, but when combined with his legendary slide and harmonica skills it was pure magic.
Rising from the ashes of what was known as the underground music scene of New York during the heyday of the club CBGB’s, Willy was discovered and had some minor success in America. But it was in Europe, that he found the recognition that he deserved.
Willy continued to evolve, and mixed some of the signature sounds from New Orleans to his style. He may do one Grito Mexicano in a song that sounds like it is straight out of East LA, and then in the next song, do a similar hoot that is unmistakably Cajun.
I have loved the music of Willy DeVille since the days of The Agora in Atlanta, when he played there on a Sunday night in the early 80‘s. His hit, “Spanish Stroll” is my favorite. He had another hit with a cover of the Ben E King song, “Stand by Me”. Willy and Jon Bon Jovi collaborated together on the classic tune “Save the Last Dance for Me.” I have followed him throughout the years, and was extremely saddened by his death on August 6, 2009.
Willy survived the addiction of heroine, and the complications that go along with that lifestyle, only to lose his life to pancreatic cancer. Willy was quoted as saying, "I have a theory. I know that I'll sell much more records when I'm dead. It isn't very pleasant, but I have to get used to this idea." This to me is heartbreaking, it is so important for us to support the musicians that bring joy to our lives, before it is too late.
I write this as a tribute to Willy DeVille, and to all musicians that have that hunger to express themselves on a stage. I have also asked a few people that knew Willy well to say a few words in his honor....
Steve Conte- current guitarist for Michael Monroe, former guitarist for New York Dolls, founder of Steve Conte and the Crazy Truth, and most importantly former guitarist for Willy DeVille.
Willy & Me...(Steve Conte)
If you lived in the New York Metropolitan area in the late 1970s you had to hear at least one Mink DeVille song on the radio. For me, it was Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl and it’s soulfulness oozed out of my speakers. Cut to decades later, I was a full-blown Willy fan and to give further credence to my “if-you- hang-around-this-town-long-enough” theory, one of my good friends, David Keys was playing bass with him. I told Dave if they ever needed a guitar player to call me. The first time I got the call I couldn’t do it but the 2nd time, the stars aligned, though I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into.
David knew I was a fan of Willy’s music. It was in the summer of 2003 when string virtuoso Freddie Koella left Willy’s band to play with Bob Dylan, he rang me up to do the European tour. He said that the gig called for mandolin, Tex-Mex nylon string, and slide guitar - but those were outside my area of expertise. When I told him that David really pushed me to join the tour saying, “Come on man, you can do it…” I realized I shouldn’t pass up the chance to play those great Mink DeVille songs with Willy so I rose to the occasion…and I’m glad that I did. I got to spend 3 months on tour with Willy, playing his wonderful music in the great cities of Europe; festivals and theaters in Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland & Belgium, staying in 5 star hotels, getting first class treatment and feeling how much people related to his music and soulful delivery. It was my first full EU tour and an eye-opener on many levels.
Replacing Freddie was not an easy task. He’s a monster musician who had been playing with Willy for 15 years. David’s advice to me was, “give Willy what he knows”, so I spent a month learning every riff Freddie played from Willy’s “Live In Italy” CD; trying to figure out the open tunings he used for slide, the positions he played in, etc. But once we got into rehearsals (and later on tour) I found out that Willy was not the most forthcoming guy with any kind of feedback or positive statements. And to make matters worse, on that tour he was in pretty bad shape having recently broken his hip in a car wreck and taking strong pain killers which he would chase down daily with bottles of good French & Italian wine.
Eventually, when playing the music onstage with Willy and the band I found out that it was best to just do what was natural, even if it isn’t “what the boss expects”. During the first half of that tour I was playing it a bit safe because I wanted to please the guy. Then some drama went down where people got fired and I decided – fuck it, if I was going to lose the gig I was at least going to go down playing like me. Starting with the very next show Willy began to take notice of the guitar playing coming from stage right. He started pulling me aside to give me compliments, “Steven, that was very good tonight…I’m proud of you” and “You’re a hell of a guitar player…”, statements that, coming from Willy DeVille, I did not take for granted.
I have loads of memories from the tour…one of my most cherished was the night that I was in the bus playing my album “Spitshine” (from Crown Jewels my band w/ brother John Conte) for David, percussionist Boris Kinberg and “the girls” – New Orleans singers Sweetie & Lisa Wise. Willy came in and asked, “Who’s singing?” (he had no idea it was me) and then continued with, “It’s one of them million dollar voices…” which knowing Willy, he meant as a bit of a jab to say, “it’s commercial, radio stuff”. But again, I took it as a compliment coming from him. Many of the things I learned playing with Willy will always be with me; knowing how to lay back behind one of the most soulful singers, being able to play the old blues and folk songs from his repertoire on slide, nylon string guiar and mandolin, and the ability to deal with chaos; switching gears at a moment’s notice to play a song on one instrument that I was supposed to play on another, changing of keys, adding and leaving out sections of songs… changes that can be at the lead singer’s discretion during a show. If it weren’t for that education I would never have been prepared for my future gigs with Eric Burdon or my position in the New York Dolls.
Cut to today – 10 years later. It’s especially poignant thinking of Willy now as I enjoy my 3 & 1/2 old son, who would not be in the world if I hadn’t met my wife on his tour. I remember the night I met her in 2003 at the Arsenal theater in Vlissingen, The Netherlands…it was the afternoon Willy got his left forearm tattooed. David and I helped him design it - and talked him out of a few things he might have regretted. He came to the show with his arm all bandaged up and blood leaking on his white shirt, trying to play guitar through the pain. I have to laugh because the next day we had off and it would’ve been so much easier to recover from the “surgery” then - but Willy was impulsive and insisted on getting the tattoo before the show. I guess that was Willy DeVille; he did things his way, with style and soul.
It was an honor being asked by David Keys & the other guys to participate in Willy’s yearly birthday tribute at BB King Club in NYC…it was cool to meet the original Mink DeVille guys; Ruben, Louie & Manfred and to see some of the guys I’ve known over the years who’ve been in the band like Tommy Price, Crispin Cioe, Ricky Borgia, etc. But the coolest thing was to get to sing lead on Willy’s classic “Can’t Do Without It” from Cabretta – with Yadonna (Lisa) Wise backing me up! (there’s a video of that somewhere on youtube). And of course it was bittersweet to see his lovely wife Nina again.
As time goes on I just try to keep on making the best and most soulful rock records that I can, keeping Willy’s spirit in my consciousness. The music press brought up Willy/Mink DeVille comparisons more than once in reviewing my last album Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth (Varese Saraband/Colosseum Records) which is an honor, though not intentional. I hope that the same kind of soul will shine through on my new solo album which is more acoustic based, much like the music that I played with Willy on tour. In the end I think that Willy & I both loved the same kinds of music; classic American songwriting of the Brill building era, old blues, New Orleans, early rock & roll and soul music. With those influences – how can ya go wrong?
I miss ya Willy...
Wolfgang Guerster- a friend and famous photographer from Germany, who graciously allowed me to use some of his photos for this article.
Willy DeVille - Heaven Stood silent Obituary for an extraordinary human being, musician and friend Willy DeVille, 25.08.1950 - 06.08.2009
I was totally shocked when I on Friday night by Willy `s death was told. Although I have known for some time of his serious illness and also knew that there will be no remedy for it, has made me his death still very concerned. In this glorious summer night, I sat down in the evening in the garden, reminding me of all the wonderful and unforgettable experiences with him and on the day when I'm Lisa and Willy first met.
It was in 1984 and it was at his concert in Munich. Ever since I met him more than 100 times and may experience live. I'm really happy that I can say that we are at that time became friends.
From the beginning he has touched me deeply with his music in my heart.
I could easily write a book full of all my experiences and memories with Willy and Lisa, with the musicians of the band, with the managers, the roadies and also with the many fans.
But I will tell you here in my obituary for Willy just a story that is still very important Willy gave me incredibly with his wonderful music and many memorable moments. Whether I saw him live on stage or backstage or in hotel met, whether at home or in car I heard his songs and not care if I called him from time to time in the States. I was always grateful to him for all that.
On March 17, 1994 Willy played with Seth Farber and Freddy Koella a blues concert in Herisau / Switzerland. I remember you back in the day. I visited him at the hotel, and Willy called the front desk and asked me to come to his room. There he played on his acoustic guitar in front of me a few songs, including fragments of new, as yet unreleased songs. What was that feeling of getting virtually a solo concert by one of his favorite musicians gift, I really can not describe with words.
In the evening he played inter alia then "Who's gonna shoe your pretty little foot" and it was the first time I heard this beautiful song live by Willy Blue. This experience inspired me somehow to Willy to write a tribute song.
At that time I sang in a band himself and was also the songwriter. During the long drive home at night, I had the idea for the tribute text. During the trip I stopped several times on highway parking and wrote the text.
I called the song Mr. Blues. The next evening I met up with my band and we rehearsed the song is that my new text. We recorded the song on a cassette, and on March 22, 1994, I drove to the next Willy concert to Zurich.
In the late afternoon I met Willy and Lisa at their hotel and gave Willy my tribute text and tape.
He read through the text at first, took me by the hand and walked with me out of the hotel. We got on the tour bus, he put up my tape and we listened together Mr. Blues. Then he got up, hugged me and thanked me for the great gift. He was sooo happy that I called him Mr. Blues, because it was his biggest musical wish and dream, yes, named with the greats of the blues in the same breath to be.
I shot over all the years, tens of thousands of photos of Willy and he has always been pleased with the photos when they showed him on the next tour or have sent to him in the States.
But this tribute text made him really happy, so I will not forget this very special day for me, never again.