Hot Platters: Le Chat Bleu - Mink De Ville (Capitol Records, 1980)

Track List

1.  This Must Be The Night 

2.  Savoire Faire 

3.  That World Outside 

4.  Slow Drain 

5.  You Just Keep Holding On 

6.  Lipstick Traces 

7.  Just To Walk That Little Girl Home 

8.  Every Which Way But Loose 

9.  Heaven Stood Still

Personnel

Willy DeVille – guitar, vocals 
Steve Douglas – saxophone 
Louis X. Erlanger – guitar 
Jake and the Family Jewels - background vocals 

Allan "Jake" Jacobs 
Rochelle "Bunky" Skinner 

Kenny Margolis – piano, accordion, background vocals 
Eve Moon - background vocals 
Jean-Claude Petit - string arrangements 
Jerry Scheff – bass 
Ron Tutt – drums

Production Credits

Chris Coffin - engineering 
Willy DeVille - producer 
Joel Dorn - mixing (at Regency Sound, New York) 
Steve Douglas - producer 
Gerry Gabinelli - engineering 
Roy Kohara - art direction 
Jean Luc – photography 
Eric Migliaccio - assistant engineer 
Nicola - assistant engineer 
Phil Shima - design

Le Chat Bleu by Mink De Ville is what I would consider a lost classic and it is the creative high point for this great band from New York city.  Mink De Ville, headed by one Willy De Ville, was a great rock/soul/blues outfit that somehow wedged itself into the mid-seventies scene that was happening at CBGBs.  While Mink De Ville really had no punk rock leanings of any sort they were, as they say in the biz, "in the right place at the right time."  The band's first two albums for Capitol, produced by Jack Nitzsche, harkened back to the Brill Building magic of the sixties along with some harder edged bluesy sounds; all of which was a unique mix to be sure. The album was recorded in Paris, France.  In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Willie De Ville stated that he "…wanted that French sound…French records are so much more vivid. I knew what I was going for—this record was my dream.” 

 

Released in 1980,  the album did not immediately achieve release in the U.S  For awhile, you could only get it as an import; thereby adding to the initial "mystique" of this fine slice of vinyl.  One of the key ingredients of this record was Willy De Ville's association with Brill Building songmeister, Doc Pomus (best remembered for the many Elvis Presley classics he co-wrote with Mort Shuman).   "Willie De Ville created a record that sounded like nothing that had come before... It was clear that Willy had realized his fantasy of a new, completely contemporary Brill Building record. To the symphonic sweetness of the Drifters he added his own Gallic romance and, in his vocal, a measure of punk rock's Bowery grit. Doc was elated when he heard it. Thinking they'd signed a new wave band, Capitol didn't know what to do with Willy's rock and roll chanson and shelved it for a year. When it was finally released in 1980, Le Chat Bleu, remixed by Joel Dorn, made nearly every critic's list of the year's best records." (Alex Halberstadt, Doc Pomus biographer)

 

From Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus (Da Capo Press 2007): Alex Halberstadt describes what it was like when Pomus first heard Willy De Ville's marvelous voice: "One night, Doc's pub crawl took him to The Bottom Line club in New York City. He sat at his usual table and watched an empty spotlight. Cigarette smoke wafted into the shaft of light from offstage while the sax player blew 'Harlem Nocturne.' Willy DeVille strode out of the wings and snatched the microphone. With his pedantically trimmed pencil mustache he looked like a cross between a bullfighter and a Puerto Rican pimp. The tightest black suit clung to his thin frame; he wore a purple shirt, a narrow black tie and shoes with six-inch points. A pompadour hairstyle jutted out above his forehead like the lacquered hull of a submarine. The show was the most soulful Doc had seen in ages.  Onstage, Willy’s band, Mink DeVille, had nothing in common with the New Wave CBGB bands that the press had lumped them with. Unlike Television, The Ramones, or Blondie, at heart Mink DeVille was an R&B band, and Willy an old-fashioned soul singer. He borrowed much of his phrasing from Ben E. King and couldn't believe it when someone told him that Doc Pomus wanted to meet him after the show.  He was even more amazed when Doc asked whether he'd write with him. 'Look me up. I'm in the book,' Doc hollered before rolling away in his wheelchair." 

Bassist Jerry Scheff, who worked with Elvis Presley for many years, wrote about the session for Le Chat Bleu in his 2012 autobiography, "In 1979 I was invited by my friend Steve Douglas, the saxophone player, to go to Paris to make an album with Mink DeVille. Steve was co-producing the album and had invited Ronnie Tutt to play drums. I don't know how Steve came to the impression that Ronnie and I would fit in this scenario, but I have to say that the end result, Le Chat Bleu, is one of my favorite rock albums of all time... Willy's songs had a heavy Hispanic influence as well as a hint of Cajun music. Put all of that together with street-corner doo-wop, accordion playing, and Willy's wonderful velvet voice and what you get, in my opinion, is great rock 'n 'roll."

 

"On Le Chat Blue we had all these great people involved, you know, and we thought we had something great. I came back to America, and my label at that time said, 'Well, we think we should put it on the shelf for a while.'  This was right before Christmas for God's sake when you know people are going to be buying stuff, so I asked them what the problem was. They said they had never heard anything like it before and didn't know what to do with it. We had Charles Dumont, Elvis's goddamned rhythm section, and they say they've never heard anything like it. I was heartbroken and angry. Finally Maxine Schmidt from my distributor in France (EMI Paris) phones and he says, 'Willy what's going on?' So I told him. He said don't worry we'll release it over here. We did, and then it became a matter of not what are we going to do with Willy Deville, but who the hell let him get away. As an import it was wracking up great sales here. Capital finally went and released a copy of it, but never did too much work on it." (Leap in the Dark magazine)

 

As the above excerpt from a a Willie De Ville interview indicates, Capitol Records had absolutely no idea what to do with the Le Chat Bleu album.  “Capitol Records, Mink DeVille’s record company, was not happy with Le Chat Bleu, believing that American audiences were incapable of listening to songs with accordions or lavish string arrangements.” (Wikipedia).  As a result, Capitol Records initially only released the album in Europe “’That really broke my heart,’ DeVille said, ‘That record was my Starry Night.  Records are like children; it’s like having a baby. 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 said, ‘We really don’t know what to do with this. We’ve never heard anything like this before.’” (Rolling Stone magazine).

 

The Guardian: "Le Chat Bleu’s lush romanticism was underpinned by some DeVille songs written with Doc Pomus, previously a lyricist for Elvis Presley and the Drifters. In the US, Capitol refused to issue the record, claiming its strings and accordions were uncommercial, and only relenting after strong import sales and Rolling Stone championing it as one of the best albums of 1980. That year, the New York Times wrote of DeVille: He embodies [New York’s] tangle of cultural contradictions while making music that’s both idiomatic, in the broadest sense, and utterly original.”

allmusic.com:  "Le Chat Bleu is angel-headed hipster rock. The Doc Pomus influence on the opening track, This Must Be the Night, with its cascading harmonies and 1950's girl group melodies, is a doo wop fantasy for the punk age. That influence was more than that as Pomus and Willy DeVille co-wrote three songs together for this stellar effort. Far more reverent than the Ramones and nowhere near Robert Gordon's stilted revivalism, Mink DeVille could sing and play rock & roll sweetly and razor sharp, kind of like a lollipop on the edge of a dagger. The first of the DeVille/Pomus soul ballads is included here. That World Outside, with producer Steve Douglas' lilting tenor saxophone that twists itself around each line and breezes through the chorus, is pure Pomus, with DeVille carrying a vocal he'd never attempted before. This was the beginning of something for the band, and the end of something else. Piss and vinegar were not enough to fuel the band's muse any longer -- it also took polish, sensitivity, and a deep commitment to subtlety and drama, and this ballad contains them in spades. The other two, You Just Keep Holdin' On and Just to Walk That Little Girl Home, burn as brightly. Of the rockers, Savoir Faire and Lipstick Traces contain the wooly garage stomp of the earlier records and keep their switchblade honesty and punky edge. Contrary to popular belief, this album is not the sound of a band losing its innocence as much as it is the sound of a rock & roll band finding its identity." 

noripcord.com: "One could picture the blanched faces of Capitol Records executives when Willy DeVille explained the concept for his band’s third album. He wanted to record in France, using the string-arrangement skills of Jean Claude Petit to capture the Continental sounds he heard in his head. It sounded risky and expensive. The sensible course for a fledging, unproven band was to record in New York, as quick and cheap as possible, but Willy DeVille was not a sensible man...Le Chat Bleu was a grander concept, taking the music back to the Latin-tinged arrangements heard in classic songs by The Drifters and the melodrama of European cabaret songs. Three of the album’s ten songs were written in partnership with songwriting legend Doc Pomus, all standout tracks that could be mistaken as Brill-Building standards. Pomus could put together a story with a few choice lines. A case in point is Just To Walk That Little Girl Home which, from the first note, conveys the mood of a closing bar, deep romantic longings, and late-night lonely strolls. There’s no detachment here, no ironic distance. This music is meant to be felt, capable of disarming hardened cynics. DeVille, who learned his lesson from a master, follows this emotional tread throughout Le Chat Bleu. This Must Be The Night opens the album like an electric storm, with DeVille and a female chorus capturing the excitement of a first date, climaxing with a delirious sax solo by Steve ouglas. Savoir Faire and Lipstick Traces are hard-driving rock ‘n roll songs about obsession. There are two sides to it; the former has a man in thrall of a French beauty, thrilled by the chase, and the roles are reversed in the latter, with the man trying to get out of a suffocating relationship. The tempo slows to adagio on That World Outside, a song about the power of love helping to cope with a harsh reality. You Just Keep Holding On speeds up the tempo with a full Spector sound, complete with castanets and soaring strings. There are two well-chosen non-originals; Bad Boy is an obscure doo-wop track from 1957 that fits perfectly with DeVille’s persona while Mazurka is an accordion-driven zydeco song by Queen Ida which points forward to DeVille’s latter career as a New Orleans revivalist. The song was replaced in the U.S. version of the album by the guitar-driven Turn You Every Way But Loose. If you find the album’s expanded edition, you’ll get both. Slow Drain is another highlight, a danceable cha-cha track with Latin horns and percussion. The lyrics, drawn from personal experience, are about people losing their will to drugs and having no-one to blame but themselves. If Lou Reed had grown up in the barrio, he’d sound like this. Heaven Stood Still caps the album with melodrama, a French chanson in the Jacques Brel style. Maybe it was the audacity of these songs that scared Capitol executives, who refused to release the album in America. To this day, it’s easier to pigeonhole an artist into one niche, branding them as a commodity for public consumption. DeVille never played by those rules. Le Chat Bleu was hailed by many critics as the best album of 1980, which didn’t sway Capitol until import sales shot up. This belated, grudging release made little impact on retail sales, and the album stalled at number 167 on the U.S. charts....DeVille died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, leaving a legacy of 14 studio albums, eight released as a solo artist. It’s a legacy that’s still underappreciated to this day, but that could be remedied. If you love passionate, intimate, and heartfelt music, listen to Le Chat Bleu. It’s all there in the grooves."

 

 Listening to Le Chat Bleu always sparks the memories I have of meeting both Willey De Ville and Doc Pomus.  In 1978, I was working in a studio with the Freelance Vandals and as it turned out, Mink De Ville were in an adjacent studio working on their second album, Return To Magenta.  One afternoon, I happened to strike up a conversation with Willie De Ville in the hallway.  We were both taking a break from cutting some vocals.  I know Willie struggled with drug addiction throughout his life but as we stood there talking about the rigors of working in the studio, he struck me as a down to earth guy.  

I remember meeting Doc Pomus many times over at the Lone Star Cafe and always enjoyed talking about songwriting with this Brill Building legend.  With the involvement of Pomus, Mink De Ville's Le Chat Bleu moved into a stylistic territory that is steeped in the sixties sound of American pop and rhythm & blues that is best described as urban soul. 

In 2003 deluxe compact disc expanded edition of Le Chat Bleu, which featured 8 live tracks and an interview with WIllie De Ville and Doc Pomus, was released.  Along with the original album, the live tracks offer a deeper perspective on Wille De Ville's creative direction with regards to the Le Chat Bleu album.  I was lucky enough to be at the New York show where some of these tracks were recorded.

 


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