The pattern of developing a new musical artist in late Seventies’ New York City was fairly predictable. In those days when the mighty record machine of the major labels still controlled things, I could see it coming. It started with radio exposure for a few songs from an artist’s debut record getting played by the jocks on progressive radio’s landmark station, WNEW-FM (102.7). Despite the freedom to play whatever they wanted, the DJs made an effort to promote the cuts they really liked. Then, just about the time the new artist really caught your ear, the news would come out that they were doing a series of showcase gigs at The Bottom Line with the station broadcasting one of the nights live.
Around this time, the WNEW jocks latched on to three great songs from Mink DeVille’s debut record: “Mixed up, Shook up Girl,” “Spanish Stroll” and a cover of Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk.” Like other acts at the time, despite a timeless sound that predated current trends, the band rode the crest of the New Wave onto the FM dial. Lead singer Willy DeVille’s voice was exquisitely passionate, and he scared you half-to-death with his tough Lower East Side macho look and streetwise swagger.
When would I be seeing Willy and the band at The Bottom Line? For whatever reason behind the powers at Capitol Records, it never happened! I wound up seeing the band play to a packed house at a new club, Great Gildersleeves, in the Bowery not too far from CBGBs, where Mink DeVille had first honed their chops.
The Gildersleeves show was brilliant and included all my favorite songs from the record. It was fabulously graced by Willy’s vocals and commanding stage presence accompanied by the sizzling guitar work of Louis X. Erlanger. My memories of the night are somewhat faint, and I only remember standing amid a few scant tables feeling like a stranger in a strange land in this unfamiliar room. Those were strange and pretentious times. It was easy for a young fellow like me to feel quite out of place simply because he wasn’t wearing the right jacket for the scene.
Fast forwarding Mink DeVille, in May 1978, I would see them a few more times sandwiched between Elvis Costello and Rockpile on their legendary triple-threat tour. Later that year in July, it finally happened—in support of their second record, a showcase at The Bottom Line with a live WNEW-FM broadcast.
Willy sadly led a tough life and died an early death in 2009. His legacy lives on not only with that brilliant debut record, but with a fine catalog that included an Academy Award-nominated performance for “Storybook Love,” the theme song to Princess Bride. It was a shining moment in a great career dampened only by the fact that few know that it is Willy DeVille behind the song.
I was a regular at GG from the night it opened, worked the coat room for kicks the first two winters and got to know the owners, bartenders and a few of the Angels. It was a fun place and now and then featured really good music. Mink DeVille was one of those shows and maybe the best I saw there. They had a stage presence and a sound that set them apart.