september 2009

Willy DeVille: Uncommon soul and a big heart


Willy DeVille
August 27, 1950-August 6, 2009

WILLY DEVILLE, singer, songwriter, style-conscious and roots invested leader of Mink DeVille, died of pancreatic cancer in New York City on August 6. He was 58. He had returned to New York in 2003 after living in New Mexico for several years.

Coming out of the CBGB scene in the mid-'70s, Mink DeVille's music was ambitious on a scale akin to that of Television and Talking Heads, but less self-consciously arty and with a depth of soul neither of those bands could approach. His musical inspirations ranged from Cajun music to French bistro songs to Latin romantic ballads, classic soul and R&B and traditional rock 'n' roll; in his high, well-coifed pompadour, severe pencil-line moustache, impeccably tailored suits and pointed toe boots, he personally aspired to affect a dapper style that reflected his deep-rooted urban romantic sensibility. Signed to Capitol Records, he recorded three critically acclaimed albums with producer Jack Nitzsche, with the first, Cabretta, yielding two minor hits in "Spanish Stroll" and "Cadillac Walk." The second Nitzsche-produced album, Return To Magenta, was notable for the presence of lush, shimmering strings on several cuts, a throwback reminiscent of the early '60s recordings of one of DeVille's favorite groups, the Drifters. Making the Drifters connection more explicit on his stunning third album, Le Chat Bleu, DeVille teamed up with one of the Drifters' principal songwriters, the legendary Doc Pomus, to write several tracks on the album. Pomus, himself an urban romantic of the first order, brought out the best in DeVille, and Le Chat Bleu, with its hip lyrics and eerie mise-en-scene played like an aural film noir opus, as seductive as it was malevolent, full of French cabaret music, Cajun accordion melodies and dark, ominous musings of mortality and lust in the lyrics.

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Willy DeVille, 'Storybook Love,' nominated for an Academy Award as the theme for The Princess Bride. A tender, gospelized version, beautifully done by all.

To the executives at Capitol Records, Le Chat Bleu played like a stiff, and thus was shelved indefinitely. It took off in Europe, though, and in 1980 Capitol finally issued it Stateside to wild-eyed acclaim—it was one of Rolling Stone's top albums of the year, back when that meant something.

thumbnailDeville never reached the artistic heights of Le Chat Bleu again, but he continued making exemplary albums, most of which were little noticed by the press or public. After Le Chat Bleu, DeVille signed with Atlantic Records, the Drifters' label, and explored his love of soul music on 1981's Nitzsche-produced Coup de Grace. In 1985 he consigned Mink DeVille to history and thereafter recorded as Willy DeVille on an eclectic outpouring of music that included projects steeped in Cajun and Zydeco following his move to New Orleans in 1988. His 1990 album, Victory Mixture, featured Crescent City musical legends Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Eddie Bo. In 1987 his song "Storybook Love," from the album Miracle, was used as the theme for the Rob Reiner film, The Princess Bride, and nominated for an Academy Award. Recording only sporadically in the '90s while reportedly battling various physical ailments, his most interesting offering was 1999's Horse of a Different Color, his first in-depth foray into Southern traditional music and blues.

He is survived by his third wife, Nina; a son, Sean; and a sister, Mimi.


The Dells, 1960: John E. Carter lower left

John E. Carter
June 2, 1934-August 21, 2009

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, as a member of the Flamingoes and the Dells, tenor JOHN E. CARTER (variously Johnny and Johnnie), a legend of the Chicago soul scene, died of lung cancer in August at the age of 75. In 1952 he became a founding member of one of the greatest R&B groups in history, the Flamingos, along with Jake Carey, Zeke Carey and Paul Wilson, (later joined by Earl Lewis), who were Carter's choir mates at the black-Jewish Church of God and Saints in Christ and had fused the minor key melodies of Jewish songs to plaintive pop balladry to create a singular vocal harmony mix. The group's first big him, a classic of the time, was 1956's "I'll Be Home," a plaintive ballad sung by a serviceman promising his return to the girl he left behind. It was a #5 R&B hit and broke into the pop Top 10. Carter then was drafted into the Army, but when he returned to civilian life he found he had been replaced in the Flamingoes. He joined the Dells in 1960, replacing lead tenor Johnny Funches, as the band was about to go on tour opening for and backing Dinah Washington, and remained with the group until the time of his death, lending his distinctive vocal flair to succeeding group hits such as 1965's Top 30 R&B number, "Stay In My Corner"; 1967's "Stay In My Heart," which topped the R&B charts and cracked the pop Top 10; and a 1969 remake of their career making 1956 group harmony smash, "Oh What a Nite," which was also a #1 R&B and pop Top 10 item. Working with producer Don Davis in 1973, the Dells cut their first certified million-selling single, "Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation." Filmmaker Robert Townsend employed the Dells as consultants on his movie about a fictional vocal group, The Five Heartbeats, and their soundtrack number, "The Heart Is a House for Love," became an R&B single hit in 1991. The Dells' last album was 2000's Reminiscing, but they continued performing until this past summer, when Carter's cancer was diagnosed.

The Dells, 'A Heart Is a House for Love,' from The Five Heartbeats

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Carter's daughter, Jewel Carter, who survives him, said her father "preferred singing to talking, and he loved making people laugh." Indeed, friends liked to joke that the happy-go-lucky Carter would open a refrigerator door and start singing when the light came on. Reporting on Carter's passing on Chicago's local ABC affiliate website (, Paul Meincke said Carter's final days were spent singing to doctors, nurses and patients at Ingalls Memorial Hospital.

"That light," Meincke noted, "was always on."

'Basic Rhythm and Blues'
A 40th Anniversary profile of The Dells

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