Willy DeVille: Singer and guitarist with Mink DeVille who explored America's rich spectrum of popular music

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The Independent Online

Best known in the UK for the streetwise latin-flavoured soul of "Spanish Stroll", a Top 20 single for his group Mink DeVille in 1977, the American singer and songwriter Willy DeVille was justly revered as a major figure by rock fans throughout continental Europe, yet enjoyed only critical recognition in the US.

While Mink DeVille came out of New York's CBGB's scene of the mid-1970s, they could hardly be described as a punk rock group, and their blend of doo-wop, rhythm 'n' blues, Brill Building pop and neighbourhood swagger proved too eclectic to fit any US radio format. DeVille used the group's name for six albums and continued exploring much of the rich spectrum of American music – blues, Dixieland, New Orleans R&B, mariachi, Cajun – often with the genres' originators – as well as chanson, for another 10 poignantly beautiful solo albums including Loup Garou (1995) and his most recent, Pistola (2008).

In 1987, his composition "Storybook Love", from the Miracle album, recorded in London with the Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, was featured in the Rob Reiner comedy The Princess Bride and nominated for an Academy Award. DeVille performed the song at the ceremony but lost out to "(I've Had) The Time Of My Life" from Dirty Dancing. In 1992, he scored the biggest of his many hits in continental Europe with a distinctive mariachi take on "Hey Joe", the Billy Roberts song popularised by Jimi Hendrix.

Over three decades, he collaborated with such legendary figures as the producer and arranger Jack Nitzsche and the songwriter Doc Pomus, as well as Dr. John, Eddie Bo, Allen Toussaint and Brenda Lee, an indication of the high esteem in which he was held by fellow musicians. Indeed, in 1978, Pomus declared: "Willy 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. But the fighters always have a shot at turning a corner, and if you holler loud enough, sometimes somebody hears you. And truth and love always separate the greats from the neverwases and neverwillbes."

Born William Borsey in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1953, Willy DeVille was of Basque and Irish descent, with Pequot Native-American blood on his mother's side. "A real street dog," he would later tell interviewers who commented on his emaciated physique. Aged 14, he moved to New York with his parents, and began dropping out of school and spending more time in Greenwich Village and on the Lower East Side, modelling himself on the white blues singer and guitarist John Hammond. In 1970 he travelled to London, where his pompadour hair raised a few eyebrows but he failed to find any musician who shared his impeccable taste in doo-wop, soul and R&B.

Back in New York, he formed the short-lived Royal Pythons before setting out for San Francisco where he began assembling Billy DeSade & The Marquees, and then Mink DeVille, a name change which coincided with his becoming Willy DeVille. "We were sitting around talking of names, and some of them were really rude, and I was saying: guys, we can't do that," he recalled in 2006. "Then, one of the guys said: how about Mink DeVille? There can't be anything cooler than a fur-lined Cadillac, can there?"

DeVille convinced his new group to follow him back to New York where they auditioned for CBGB's owner Hilly Kristal. In 1976 they appeared on a Live At CBGB's album but had little in common with Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Heartbreakers, Television, Blondie and Talking Heads. "All of a sudden came this word 'punk', which where I come from is a bad word," DeVille mused. "A punk is somebody who picks a fight with you and then never shows up. We were all labelled as part of this American punk thing."

The band signed to Capitol and Nitzsche, a former arranger for Phil Spector, was impressed enough by their version of Otis Redding's "These Arms Of Mine" to agree to produce their debut album, Cabretta, and became firm friends with DeVille. Mick Jagger, whom Nitzsche had also worked with, dropped by the studio and gave his seal of approval to the falsetto soul of "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl", but it was the single "Spanish Stroll" which helped sell the album internationally. Mink DeVille app-eared on Top Of The Tops and supported Dr Feelgood in autumn 1977. The date I caught at Sheffield City Hall remains etched in the memory for the singer's just-the-right-side-of-pimp-like appearance, complete with sharp suit and pencil-thin moustache, his command of the stage, and stunning versions of The Crystals' "Little Girl" and Moon Martin's "Cadillac Walk", two further Cabretta highlights.

Return To Magenta, the follow-up, didn't perform as well as the first album, despite a US tour with Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe in 1978. Capitol failed to understand the brilliance of the next release, Le Chat Bleu, on which DeVille worked with Pomus and the French arranger Jean-Claude Petit, merging the Brill Building tradition of crafted songs with Cajun music and his romantic idea of Paris, where much of the album was recorded.

"I wanted that French sound," said the singer, who had to wait until 1980 to see Le Chat Bleu issued in the US. "French records are so much more vivid. I knew what I was going for. This record was my dream. That really broke my heart. Records are like children. Your blood is on those tracks, and you do the best you can. They threw dust in my face. To them, the music was too avant-garde. They didn't even know what Cajun music was."

DeVille admired Atlantic acts like The Drifters and Ben E. King, and jumped at the chance to join Ahmet Ertegun's label for Coup de Grace (1981), again produced by Nitzsche, and Where Angels Fear To Tread (1983). The singer acknowledged he had drug problems and had cleaned up his act somewhat, but again US success proved elusive for a performer steeped in the same tradition as Bruce Springsteen yet less marketable to the US mainstream. As if working his way through the annals of popular music, DeVille headed for Muscle Shoals in Alabama for the Sportin' Life album in 1985, and scored another European hit with the funky single "Italian Shoes".

In 1987, he worked with Knopfler on Miracle, and ditched the band name. "Everyone was calling me Mink. I thought it was about time to get the name straight," he said. The following year he moved to New Orleans and instantly felt at home as he delved into the area's rich tradition of rhythm and blues, Cajun and zydeco music for the covers album Victory Mixture (1990). The album became another best-seller in Europe and was followed by a New Orleans revue tour featuring Dr. John, Zachary Richard and the Wild Magnolias in 1992, which introduced a new generation of aficionados to these artists, and was documented on the Big Easy Fantasy album (1995).

In 1992, he dedicated Backstreets Of Desire to the late Pomus and to Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls and Heartbreakers, who had recently died of a drug overdose in New Orleans in a hotel next to the singer's house. "New Orleans is a marvellous place, but it really is very strange. If you're not careful, funny things can happen," said DeVille. He finally kicked his heroin habit after moving to Mexico in 2000, only for his second wife Lisa, to commit suicide by hanging two years later. "I was in love with another woman and we were going through some hard times. Somebody I loved very much died. I had to cut her down. I was taunting death and I got in a car accident. I was on crutches and using a cane for about three years." He underwent hip replacement surgery in 2006 and seemed to have finally conquered his demons in recent years.

He married again and returned to New York in 2003 but was diagnosed with Hepatitis C – probably due to his former heroin addiction – and pancreatic cancer a few months ago. A petition to have DeVille inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame was started online earlier this year. His induction would be a fitting tribute to this American musician who was never a prophet in his own country but did more than most to popularise the music he loved and its roots overseas.

William Borsey (Willy DeVille), singer, songwriter: born Stamford, Connecticut 27 August 1953; three times married (one son); died New York 6 August 2009.