MOTOR CITY TITAN Mitch Ryder

With a new Don
Was-produced album finally in stores, the Detroit-rock icon sets sights anew on
his American audience.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

Mention to Mitch Ryder that he’s the source point, the
iconic origin, for Detroit’s national reputation as a great rock ‘n’ roll town
– cradle of Seger, Iggy, MC5 and onward to White Stripes and Dirtbombs – and
he’s unimpressed, to say the least.

 

“Oh cool,” he says facetiously, when that point is made
during a phone interview from his Detroit
home on the occasion of the American release of his album, The Promise. “Do I get a gold watch?”

 

While Ryder, now 66, wasn’t the first Detroiter to make rock
‘n’ roll, with his band the Detroit Wheels he closely identified the Motor City
– known at the time for Motown’s teen-oriented R&B – with frenetic, sweaty
rock. Their cluster of mid-1960s hits – “Devil With a Blue Dress/Good Golly
Miss Molly,” “Jenny Take a Ride!,” “Sock It to Me – Baby!,” “Little Latin Lupe
Lu” and “Too Many Fishes in the Sea” – featured Ryder’s electrifying shouting
and the band’s slashing passion, and did much to make Detroit a gritty rock city.

 

The hits mostly were covers, but sung and performed in a
manner that made them authoritative. Recording for producer Bob Crewe (the Four
Seasons), Ryder became a Top 40 star just before the action in rock moved to
albums and FM radio. (A longtime highlight of Bruce Springsteen’s live shows
has been his “Detroit Medley” of Ryder hits.)

 

Ryder further explains, in a mild-mannered and ego-free
speaking voice, his viewpoint about his legacy. “I appreciate all the accolades
and attention and proclamations, but that’s for other people to determine. My
dedication is to my craft. I want to grow as an artist. That’s all I care
about.”

 

But to grow as an artist, one must first make a living at
it. And in recent years Ryder found his livelihood challenged. He’s been a
fixture on the brutally competitive American oldies circuit for decades and
he’s been content to mine that field, not releasing a new U.S. album since 1983’s John
Mellencamp-produced attempt at a
comeback, Never Kick a Sleeping Dog. (Strangely,
however, he has developed a separate career in Germany for new material, releasing
albums with eyebrow-raising titles like The
Old Man Springs a Boner, A Dark Caucasian Blue, The Acquitted Idiot
and You Deserve My Art.)

 

But time was taking its toll on Ryder’s following.

 

“The profile was so getting so low in America it was starting to get to
the point we couldn’t sustain ourselves financially on this side of the ocean,”
he explains. “Over there (Germany),
we paid five or six months worth of bills, but the rest has to be accounted for
through jobs in America.
And last year was the worst in my entire career in America, in terms of numbers of
dates performed.

 

“So we had to do something to get back on the radar in America. And we
have to be able to offer something of worth.”

 

***

 

Ryder’s answer was to call an old friend and admirer,
celebrity producer (and Detroit
native) Don Was, and ask for help with a new album. Was, who has worked with Ryder
previously, agreed. The result, The
Promise,
initially appearing in the U.K.
on the Freeworld label under the title Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet (The Promise) (read the
BLURT review here), has been released stateside on Ryder’s own Michigan
Broadcasting Corporation label. Out to do right by Ryder, Was brought him to L.A.’s Henson Studio in
late 2009 to record and used his top engineer, Krish Sharma. He also put
together a top-flight group of studio musicians to help, including Reggie
McBride on bass, Randy Jacobs on guitar and William “Sweet Pea” Atkinson on
background vocals.

 

All but one of the 12 songs are Ryder originals. “Don
created an essentially R&B/rock mix,” Ryder says. “Don wanted to exhibit
the fact I still have a remarkable voice and he did a wonderful job of capturing it.” (Listen
to streams from the album, below.)

 

Almost simultaneously, the album’s release coincides with
the publication by Cool Titles of Ryder’s memoir, Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend. Confessional
and aggrieved (especially at those who he believes have hurt his career),
painfully raw in detailing his struggles as a husband (his current wife is his
third) and with his sexual identity, the book is a frank chronicle of a rough
life. It also is sprinkled with some iconoclastic, at-times-hot-headed
political opinions.

 

The book even has reproductions of handwritten letters from
his current wife, Megan, that feel like an invasion of privacy to read: “…There
is no hurt that you have not handed me – no line you have not crossed, no abuse
you have not caused me. I am through,” she writes in one.

 

So are they still married? “Oh yeah. We’re very much in
love,” Ryder says.

 

It should be pointed out here that he is especially hard on
himself in the book for the ways he treated his former wives and current one.
“Look at what they had to live with, to be honest,” he says. “Somebody
extremely screwed up over something as simple as fading fame.”

 

He also recounts in the book how, at a young age, he was
made the “prey of a soft-spoken and gentle (and older) homosexual.” Later, as a
teen starting his musical career, he was seduced by a man. He writes he has had
gay experiences, not always enthusiastically, along with extramarital
heterosexual ones as an adult.

 

“My commitment (now) is to a heterosexual relationship,” he
says. “I’m free to choose anything I want. Anybody on the planet is.”

 

Talking about his book, Ryder says, “This is my first attempt to not only discover for myself, but to prove to
the public, that I was capable of writing. 
…One thing I wasn’t going to shy away from in this book was being
truthful. Then you’d be plagued the rest of your life with constant debates
about the validity of your statements. So if you tell the truth, in the end you
win.”

 

***

 

Ryder, born William Levise Jr., grew up in a working-class
part of Detroit.
Discovering his enviable vocal cords early, as well as a love for soul music,
he started singing with local black group the Peps. Then, as Billy Lee, he
joined up with rock band the Rivieras and made
an immediate impact on Detroit.
Crewe discovered them opening for Dave Clark Five, moved them to New York and renamed
them Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Crewe
subsequently tried to turn Ryder into an American Tom Jones. Watching Ryder on
an old YouTube clip today, wearing a double-breasted suit and stiffly
interpreting the hokey pop ballad “What Now My Love,” you can tell he was way
out of his element.

 

When their relationship (and the band) fell apart, he
recorded a 1969 album with Booker T. and the M.G.’s (The Detroit-Memphis Experiment). Then, under the patronage of
Michigan-based Creem magazine
publisher Barry Kramer and with a new band called Detroit, Ryder released a
marvelous 1971 album mixing muscular Motor City-style hard rock and soul, Detroit Featuring Mitch Ryder. The album
got strong reviews and good local airplay for “Long Neck Goose” and a raucous
version of Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll,” but failed to break nationally.

 

Many have wondered why Ryder didn’t want to stick with that
band longer. “I love what we created, but the problem with that group was the
psychological nature of a lot of participants. It was a very violent,
destructive, negative path to be part of.”

 

As was much of what has followed, it would seem from the
book – although his Mellencamp-produced album, overlooked in the marketplace,
had a great rockin’ version of Prince’s “When You Were Mine.”

 

But The Promise would seem a new beginning. One immediately notices that the voice is still
powerful and the new compositions are constructed with strong hooks and
choruses to showcase Ryder’s expressive voice. It’s contemporary, but rooted in
and respectful of old school.

 

And he is proud of the disc and optimistic
about its chances in the marketplace. There’s exuberant rock (“Thank You Mama,”
“Junkie Love”), funky soul (“My Heart Belongs to Me”), a sinewy Latin
arrangement (“Let’s Keep Dancing”), and a quieter, minor-key mid-tempo ballad
(“Everybody Loses”) that builds to a riveting chorus while avoiding false,
clichéd moves.

 

While a song or two is but a party-ready bar-friendly rocker
(the slightly salacious “If My Baby Don’t Stop Crying”; the familiar
electric-guitar soloing of “Get Real”), quite a few  contain lyrics with an autobiographical
punch. The title song, for instance, which can be read as a hopeful look at the
early days of the Obama Administration, features Ryder defiantly singing, “My child will have doctors, my child will
have good schools, my wife will have medicine, my work will have good tools.”
Even
the more straightforward dance-oriented numbers, like “One Hair,” have their
surprising lyrical twists: “Let’s have a
party where everybody’s shaking/And not from some bad physical disease.”

 

“The songs I brought are not ‘Devil With a Blue Dress’
because I don’t have the energy I had when I was 19,” Ryder says. “But they’re
soulful and clever and instructive and entertaining and everything a song
should be.

 

“Some of the lyrical material is a little bit more
age-relevant, but why shouldn’t it be? How can I go about describing my life if
I keep referring back to when I was 19?”

 

The Promise also
contains a live version, from one of Was’ free Concert of Colors festivals in
Detroit, of Jimmy Ruffin’s Motown classic “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.”
It allows Ryder to go full-throated at the end, screaming like indeed he still
is 19.

 

Right after this interview, he and his five-person band were
off to Germany
for shows. He’s unsure of his fate upon his return, but hopes The Promise is well-received enough to
get him off the oldies circuit and into clubs where he can showcase himself as
a relevant rocker with vital, new material – as well as some enviable classics.

 

“I’ve still got my chops and I’ve got a great band,” he
says.

 

[Photo Credit: ThKraft
(on stage, Chemnitz/Saxony 2008), via Wikimedia Creative Commons]

 

 


Mitch Ryder – ‘The Promise’ by Cary Baker

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