Willie Nile is a veteran rock & roll singer and songwriter who emerged from New York's Lower East Side during the late '70s with poignant, rousing, energetic songs that were at once literate and passionate. When his self-titled debut album appeared in 1980, and especially its lead single, "Vagabond Moon," Nile's frenetic, rootsy attack drew comparisons to everyone from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty and John Mellencamp, but transcended them all with a frenetic stage attack that combined the urgency and frenetic raw energy of punk rock with the polish and finesse of classic rock's best writers. After his equally celebrated sophomore outing, The Golden Down, in 1981, Nile paid serious dues at the hands of the music business and was forced to take a performance and recording sabbatical for nearly a decade. When he did re-emerge with 1991's Places I Have Never Been, it was regarded by critics as a "...beautifully crafted record." While he released few albums during the remainder of the century, he toured, played larger and larger rooms, and wrote constantly. When he returned to recording with 2006's Streets of New York, it ushered in a period of near prolific activity that made up for lost time; he has issued at least an album a year since that time--including 2013's American Ride and 2014's If I Was a River, with his passion and pathos intact.
Willie Nile was born in Buffalo, New York on June 7, 1948 into a musical family -- his grandfather was a vaudeville pianist who played with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Eddie Cantor, and his uncles played boogie woogie. Nile's older brothers, meanwhile, brought home the music of Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Fats Domino, all of whom he heard from the time when he was three or four years old. Nile himself began playing piano at age eight and took classical music lessons until he was a teenager, when he taught himself his first rock & roll song. He soon began to compose short songs and continued the habit into his college years, when during the summers he made trips into New York City to frequent hootenanny clubs like Folk City and the Gaslight. After graduation, Nile took an apartment in the heart of Greenwich Village; however, during his first winter in New York, he contracted pneumonia, which put him out of commission for about a year, although he continued writing songs while recuperating. After regaining his health, he began hanging out at clubs like CBGB, where he would see acts like Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones, and Talking Heads.
Upon establishing a residency at the Village club Kenny's Castaways, Nile began drawing ever-growing crowds, which in turn led to his first record deal. Following a flurry of critical acclaim, he found himself courted by representatives from almost a dozen record companies; he chose Arista Records and went into the studio with a band that included Jay Dee Daugherty from the Patti Smith Group. After two acclaimed albums, a self-titled 1980 effort, and 1981's Golden Dawn, Nile fell prey to protracted legal problems that derailed his career for a number of years; although he continued to write, he did not perform live or record again until a 1987 performance in Oslo, Norway with Eric Andersen.
A videotape of Nile's performance in Norway prompted a Columbia talent scout to sign him to the label in 1988. Production on Nile's album didn't start for two more years; issued in 1991, Places I Have Never Been featured guest appearances by Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Roger McGuinn, and members of the Hooters and the Roches. The album received strong reviews but sales were unimpressive, and Columbia dropped Nile. The independent Polaris label issued the four-song EP Hard Times in America in 1992, but Nile didn't release another studio recording until Beautiful Wreck of the World in 2000. (In the interim, Nile issued Live in Central Park, a document of a 1980 performance in New York, in 1997.)
Nile played Europe and toured the East Coast while he waited until the time was right to go back into the studio. He finally emerged re-energized on 2006's Streets of New York, with guest appearances by Larry Campbell and Jakob Dylan, which marked the beginning of a regular recording schedule. He issued two concert offerings in 2007, Live at the Turning Point (his first release for River House Records, which would become his steady label) and Live from the Streets of New York. In 2009, Nile released a new studio set, House of a Thousand Guitars, and beefed up his touring schedule. He issued the acclaimed The Innocent Ones in 2011 and followed it two years later with the rocking and street-smart American Ride in 2013. Early 2015 brought a change of pace for Nile with the release of If I Was a River, a primarily acoustic set dominated by his piano work. World War Willie, his tenth LP, arrived in 2016.
In May of that year, Nile was invited to sing four songs at an N.Y.C. celebration of Bob Dylan's 75th birthday. Moved by how timely so many of the songs performed that night were -- some more than 50 years old -- Nile was inspired. He undertook a PledgeMusic campaign and made an entire album of Dylan covers. The finished offering, titled Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan, was released during the summer of 2017. A portion of the proceeds was donated to Light of Day, a charity he was long affiliated with which raises money for Parkinson's research. Nile undertook a PledgeMusic campaign to fund his next set, a collection of powerful, energetic neo-political rock & roll songs entitled Children of Paradise. Cut with his road band and co-produced with Stewart Lerman, the album contained songs of recent and distant vintage, unified thematically by a desire to transcend the tension of the times. It was released in the mid-summer of 2018. ~ Richard Skelly