I always find it very interesting, and yet sorrowful, when I find out about an album that had just about everything going for it during its prime, but never had the wide acclaim and popularity it should have received. You can be CBGB’s house band, hire Jack Nitzsche (Phil Spector and Neil Young’s former cohort) to produce your debut album, cover The Crystals on that album and have one of the most enthusiastic characters as a frontman, and still only receive something of a cult following. For Mink DeVille, that unfortunately was the case.
1977 was year zero for music. Anything that wouldn’t have stood a chance at pop supremacy the year before turned the tables on the “hard rock” kings that conquered the earlier part of the decade. So for early R&B-influenced bands like Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Talking Heads or Mink DeVille, it was the perfect opportunity to become more than just the in-house band. After three years of playing some of the same songs, and a year and a half of being CBGB’s house band, Mink Deville released their energetic and soulful debut album, Cabretta, in ’77.
Cabretta has the blue-eyed soul that the early-70s Stones records introduced, and the American pub rock style that Bruce showcased in his first three records, all wrapped up in city-crooning swagger. Opening with the ultra-funky “Venus of Avenue D,” frontman Willy DeVille narrates “I see you walking down the street, lookin’ good enough/She’s my inspiration dressed in red, she’s spinning all my friends heads.” The song has a smooth E Street step to it, with some excellent sax playing towards the end.
He has similarly upbeat songs like the Fogerty-leaning “One Way Street,” the punkier “Gun Slinger,” the Lou Reed-ish “Spanish Stroll” and the cool & collected “Cadillac Walk.” These upbeat songs bring forth the raw performance style that Mink Deville became famous for at CBGB’s. On the other hand, Willy and co. are never afraid to break into ballad territory. He has an excellent remake of The Crystals on “Little Girl,” the very Petty-meets-Springsteen “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl” and the soul classic “Can’t Do Without It,” which sounds like a song Al Green or Baby Huey would’ve sung years earlier.
The album closes with two incredible songs. The first is “She’s So Tough” (a song John Mellencamp would cover years later), a wonderful song about getting the cold shoulder. DeVille begs: “Now baby, just for a chance to talk to you/If it were the last thing that I ever do/Well I would walk until I wore out my shoes.” Then the album closes with arguably Mink’s best track in general, an ode to flaky women entitled “Party Girls.” Willy cries “somehow I always play the fool when I believe you”, as the Spanish percussion & piano help him cope through each painful verse.
Mink DeVille was a fluid band, and progressed like some of their more popular contemporaries had as they continued to record. Yet, despite Cabretta having an impressive amount of personality and rebellious pop swagger, it still has yet to see that “classic” tag that Born To Run, My Aim Is True or other similarly-styled records during that time now have. Even with a fair deal of radio publicity and musician fans, Mink DeVille never got to be the potentially successful band it could have been. Now, of course, this is a tale tried and true, but fortunately primary singer and songwriter Willy still enjoyed a cult following as a solo artist. His most acclaimed album, Backstreets of Desire, had a fair amount of college radio plays, and the album features an impressive cast of guests. Aside from being produced by legendary bluesman Dr. John, the album also features members of Los Lobos, and even surprising guest vocals by future twin sitcom stars Tia and Tamera Mowry. Willy enjoyed many years as a cult act in Europe, and in 2000, after twenty years, he defeated a troublesome addiction to heroin.
Sadly, in 2009, Willy was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, which during the course of treatment had developed into pancreatic cancer. Willy Deville died on August 6, 2009, just a few weeks shy of his birthday. Though Willy never got to see a great amount of success in his lifetime, his legacy lives on through the few that loved his music. One of Deville’s biggest fans is Allmusic blog writer Thom Jurek. Shortly after Willy’s death and a recent interview with the late singer, Jurek published an article about the beloved man. Perhaps Jurek has said it best about Deville’s legacy: “Willy DeVille is America’s loss even if America doesn’t know it yet…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.” Mink Deville’s legacy will gain following sooner hopefully than later, and in my opinion Cabretta will be the starting point of discussion.
Final note: Here’s an excellent cover of “She’s So Tough” by one of Willy DeVille’s closest friends, John Mellencamp: