This morning, a Google search revealed hundreds of obits for Willy DeVille from American news sources. This past Friday morning, the day after his death from pancreatic cancer in a hospital bed in New York City, there were less than a handful. All of them were in European languages. In America, Willy DeVille was a footnote to rock & roll history; known for fronting Mink DeVille, one of the early bands in the late-'70s CBGB's era, and for a couple songs on Cabretta, the band's debut on Capitol produced by Jack Nitzsche -- most notably, the killer cover of Moon Martin's "Cadillac Walk," and DeVille's own "Spanish Stroll," one of the true groundbreaking, genre-blurring songs he composed, and a mark that set Mink DeVille apart. For the general populace, it was the crossover pop hit "Storybook Love," and only because it appeared in the film The Princess Bride. (Never mind that it was a song from Miracle, his first solo album, produced by Mark Knopfler.)



  • "Cadillac Walk"

  • "Spanish Stroll"

  • "Storybook Love"



In Europe, however, DeVille was, and will rightfully remain, a legend for his massive talent as a songwriter, as a vocal stylist (his growls and croon are instantly recognizable and his phrasing is unlike anyone else's in the history of rock), as a street poet who was equal parts Dion DiMucci and Jacques Brel, and as an entertainer who could captivate an audience from beginning to end. His catalog is more diverse than virtually any other modern performer. The genre span of the songs he's written is staggering. From early rock and rhythm & blues styles, to Delta-styled blues, from Cajun music to New Orleans second line, from Latin-tinged folk to punky salseros, to elegant orchestral ballads -- few people could write a love song like DeVille. He was the embodiment of rock & roll's romance, its theater, its style, its drama, camp, and danger.


The Europeans got Mink DeVille's sophomore effort, Return to Magenta (also produced by Nitszche), where most American critics did not. They understood the powerful romantic ballad "Guardian Angel," as well as the razor sharp "Soul Twist" and the anthemic "Desperate Days." In interviews, Willy made no bones about his disdain for critics who didn't understand what he was trying to do, and made references to his love of Edith Piaf's music as well as his desire to record in France. And so he did, taking the band with him to record Le Chat Bleu. He wrote with Doc Pomus and recorded in the City of Lights as well as in NY. While there were certainly rockers, it was the ballads, "The World Outside," "You Just Keep Holding On," and "Just to Walk That Little Girl Home" that struck a chord with Europeans. DeVille played the Olympia Theater in Paris, the same house as Piaf and Charles Trenet. It was a love affair that spread from France to the U.K. to the Netherlands and the stage at Montreux, to Germany, Spain, and Italy, and would last the rest of his life.


  • "That World Outside"

  • "You Just Keep Holding On"

  • "Just to Walk That Little Girl Home"



Mink DeVille left Capitol for Atlantic, and the band's personnel began to change. They recorded three more albums there before splitting. These records barely registered here in the States, but in Europe they all landed on the charts. Two of them, Coup de Grace (produced by Willy and Nitszche) and Where Angels Fear to Tread, are truly solid albums -- despite lukewarm reviews at the time -- showcasing much of Willy's theatrical personality and his own desire to provide for the elements of fantasy in rock music that the early rockers and doo-woppers did in the 1950s and '60s (and that Piaf and Brel did in France). Rootsy, hook-laden rock, iconic balladry, and the theater of aural experience were all contained in songs that offered the illusion that one could still find acted out under a streetlamp-lit stage, in front of a trashcan bonfire, narrated by one costumed in the decadent attire of a Euro-trash lothario-cum-stiletto-carrying '50s gang banger. The best songs from these albums -- ""Maybe Tomorrow," Eddie Hinton's "Help Me Make It (The Power of a Woman's Love)," "Love & Emotion," the Latin scorcher "Demasiado Corazon" ("Too Much Heart"), and "Each Word's a Beat of My Heart" -- illustrate this. They captivate a listener in the same way a great period film would -- they tell an epic story in a few minutes and capture all of its life and death drama. The band's final album for Atlantic, Sportin' Life, was was a misfire because of its production. It was drenched in '80s synth schmaltz, though its songs were solid. Nonetheless, it did score a solid Euro-club single in "Italian Shoes."


  • "Love and Emotion"

  • "Demasiado Corazon"

  • "Italian Shoes"



The band called it a day in 1985, and Willy began a solo career. It began auspiciously enough with Miracle on A&M, but despite "Storybook Love" being nominated for an Academy Award, the album failed to sell -- though the film's soundtrack did -- keeping DeVille from starving (but just barely). DeVille's personal life was in as much disarray as his career. He moved first to New Mexico, then to Europe, and later New Orleans, where he resided for a long period. There he began a new chapter in his musical legacy by working with some of the Crescent City's most desirable and prominent musicians including Allen Toussaint, George Porter, and Dr. John. He released a number of albums on independent labels, including Victory Mixture (a cover set of New Orleans classics), Big Easy Fantasy, and what is arguably his great recording, Backstreets of Desire, released on the prestigious FNAC label in France, where it was received with universal acclaim. (It was issued in the United States a few years later by Rhino's short-lived Forward imprint; but given no promotion, it was deleted almost immediately.)

Backstreets of Desire combined all of DeVille's prodigious gifts in a deeply focused -- though wide ranging -- hour-long program. It's here in the breathtaking broken-hearted ballad "Empty Heart" (recorded with an orchestra), the street-savvy rock and soul in "All in the Name of Love," the sexual voodoo funk in Willie Mitchell's "Come to Poppa," the skiffle-tinged "Even While I Sleep," the folksy Caribbean-porch-song-meets-Cuban-son in his reading of Billy Roberts' "Hey Joe," or in his own breezy New Orleans-bordello-music-meets-Spanish-folk epic, "Bamboo Road." From the album's cover to its contents, there isn't a weak moment on the disc. It reveals that DeVille, despite the chaos in his life, had become a songwriter and performer in a league of his own. His sell-out performances all over Europe were a signal that this wonderfully complex persona was an "artist" in the popular vernacular and canon.


  • "All in the Name of Love"

  • "Come to Poppa"

  • "Bamboo Road"

  • "Even While I Sleep"



DeVille got another shot at the majors with the European wing of EastWest, a subsidiary of Warner, and released two excellent albums there in the late '90s: Loup Garou and Horse of a Different Color. He formed an acoustic trio at the beginning of the 21st century, radically rearranged his earlier music, wrote new songs, and added a phenomenal collection of covers from rock's glorious past to his set, and it was documented on Live in Berlin. DeVille toured Europe incessantly in the aughts, and moved back to New York. His final two albums showed no let-up in his creativity. Their sounds featured acoustic guitars, accordions, and hand percussion, with an occasional clarinet and a fine trio of backing vocalists. Both Crow Jane Alley and Pistola were issued on the Eagle imprint, and feature killer tracks such as "Downside of Town," "Muddy Waters Rose Out of the Mississippi Delta," "Chieva," and "My Forever Came Today." Pistola included funk numbers like the confessional "Been There, Done That" (a rare personal look at the man behind the songs), the killer roots rock "So So Real," and a noirish spoken word piece (with awesome orchestration and sound effects) called "The Stars That Speak." This track succeeds in summing up DeVille's entire mythology and professional persona in lyric form; it is read in his trademark smooth-whiskey-meets-cigarette-smoke voice. It reveals, just under the surface, not only the promise of dim lights, perfume, mystery, and sweat-stained sheets, but a figure whose most prominent feature is the outline of a human heart, cracked and broken over and again, who remains resolute in the notion that love prevails.

Willy DeVille is America's loss even if America doesn't know it yet. The reason is simple: Like the very best rock & roll writers and performers in our history, he's one of the very few who got it right; he understood what made a three-minute song great, and why it mattered -- because it mattered to him. He lived and died with the audience in his shows, and he gave them something to remember when they left the theater, because he meant every single word of every song as he performed it. Europeans like that. In this jingoistic age of American pride, perhaps we can revisit our own true love of rock & roll by discovering Willy DeVille for the first time -- or, at the very least, remember him for what he really was: an American original. The mythos and pathos in his songs, his voice, and his performances were born in these streets and cities and then given to the world who appreciated him much more than we did.