Back in the fall of 1980, when
Detroit rocker Bob Seger was riding high on the charts and packin’ ’em into the
stadiums with his Against The Wind album, he sold out every show during an unheard-of nine-night stand in the
Motor City. For these triumphant homecoming shows, Seger hand-picked Detroit rock ‘n’ soul
legend Mitch Ryder as his opener, a gracious act that jump-started Ryder’s
second shot at the brass ring.
Born William Levise, Jr. in Hamtramck, a city within the city limits of Detroit, Ryder got his start singing as a teen with a
local soul band named the Peps before forming his own Billy Lee and the Rivieras. Discovered in
1965 by producer Bob Crewe, the band was re-named Mitch Ryder and the Detroit
Wheels, and they would go on to score a string of early hits like “Jenny
Take A Ride,” “C.C. Rider,” and “Devil with a Blue Dress
On.” When the hits dried up, Ryder made the sojourn to Memphis to record the amazing The Detroit/Memphis Experiment with
Booker T and the MG’s in 1969.
Returning home, Ryder put together
the ground-breaking rock outfit Detroit,
which released a single 1971 album that yielded a hit with an energetic cover
of Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll.” By 1973, though, Ryder was
experiencing problems with his voice, and he retired from music. He still had
the itch, however, and his self-produced 1978 comeback album How I Spent My Vacation led to the
aforementioned gigs opening for Seger; more indie releases; a major label deal
and a John Mellencamp-produced, critically-acclaimed album that went nowhere
fast. Although Ryder’s overshadowing influence could be heard in ’80s-era hits from
folks like Seger, Mellencamp, and Springsteen, the man couldn’t get arrested
with his own work.
Flash forward almost 30 years and,
much like the gardens that are starting to crop up in the abandoned lots around
the urban wasteland formerly known as Detroit,
Mitch Ryder is still punching away at success. He never really went anywhere
you know…Ryder remained somewhat of a star in Europe,
and he has continued to record and release albums to the present day. In the
closing days of 2009, he teamed with producer Don Was – another Motor City
talent – to record Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet (The Promise) in L.A. with a top notch
batch of musicians. Working with a set of largely original songs, Ryder has
delivered a spirited performance that equals his mid-1980s creative peak.
Ryder’s calling card has always
been his uncanny ability to blend blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll into a single
artistic entity, and it’s no different on Detroit
Ain’t Dead Yet (The Promise). Ryder’s whiskey-soaked vocals still ooze with
blue-eyed soul better than anybody ever has; nowhere is this more evident than
on the album-opening track, the semi-autobiographical “Back Then.”
Ryder’s vox slip-n-slide across a funky soundtrack with characteristic swagger,
growling when necessary and hitting the high notes when appropriate as the band
lays down a vicious groove.
And so it goes…the Southern-fried
soul of “My Heart Belongs To Me” benefits from some Steve
Cropper-styled geetar pickin’, a lively rhythmic backdrop, and Ryder’s
passionate vocals. The intelligent, sometimes shocking “Junkie Love”
is a frank discussion of addiction that benefits from 1970s-styled rolling
funk-n-soul instrumentation, lively vocals, and Randy Jacobs’ squealing
fretwork. A beautiful cover of the great Jimmy Ruffin soul gem “What
Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” was recorded live and showcases Ryder’s
emotion-tugging vocal abilities while “The Way We Were” is a
haunting, topical tale of society’s decline that rocks as hard as it rolls.
Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet (The Promise) isn’t an
exploitative cash-grab taking advantage of some over-the-hill,
broken-and-broke-ass rocker. No, this is the one-and-only Mitch Ryder, still
kicking ass and taking names at age 65, delivering a monster set of songs that
combine the artist’s 1960s rock ‘n’ soul roots with his edgy 1980s solo work.
With a sympathetic producer in Don Was, who worked with Ryder in the 1990s with
his own Motor City band Was (Not Was), Ryder is able
to make a late-career statement that stands tall alongside anything he’s ever
ain’t dead yet, and neither is Mitch Ryder….
Standout Tracks: “The Way We Were,” “What Becomes Of
The Broken Hearted,” “Back Then” REV. KEITH A. GORDON