Thursday, 1 June 2017

Mitch Ryder

There's a conversation between two very well-known actors in a relatively recent movie (you can mention the title in the comments, if you know it: mini-quiz of the day); it's an arguement over which version of Little Latin Lupe Lu is better: The one by the Righteous Brothers, or the one by Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels? Today, we're not discussing the Righteous Brothers.

Mitch Ryder was conflicted over his sexual identity, and that was one of the reasons that his personal life was tempestuous. He also made some bad decisions concerning his career, which ended up being far less prominent that it could have been, based on his talent. But let's start at the beginning.

Mitch Ryder, was born William S. Levise, Jr. (February 26, 1945), and 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, but racial animosities interfered with his continued presence in the group.

Ryder formed his first band, Tempest, when he was in high school, and the group gained some notoriety playing at a Detroit soul music club called The Village. Then, as Billy Lee, he joined up with rock band the Rivieras and made an immediate impact on Detroit. They knocked crowds out with their live sets that often included multi-song medleys that kept the pace of the shows rolling. It was a tactic to minimize the breaks between numbers, cram more music in per square inch. And they'd cut a local single, but like most local singles, it didn't get over the state line. Still, word reached Bob Crewe in New York City that this was a group worth checking out, and in those days, Crewe was a key player in the world of pop; he'd started out in Philadelphia, first clicked with the Rays' single Silhouettes, co-produced hits for Danny and the Juniors and Freddie Cannon, and then developed, with Bob Gaudio, the wildly successful Four Seasons. He formed his own label, New Voice, and after he caught the Rivieras on a bill with the Dave Clark 5, they became - renamed Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels - one of his early signings.

Their first single, co-written by Bob Crewe, was called I Need Help. It was a good single, but it failed to chart.

Their second single, the Motown cover Come See About Me, bubbled under the US Hot 100.

Then Crewe suggested the medley approach on a combination of the 1920s blues number C.C. Rider and Little Richard's Jenny, Jenny. He also, somehow, got his name on the credits as a cowriter.

Jenny Take a Ride! earned its exclamation point: it's all feverish momentum, Ryder and the Wheels flinging open the doors like a biker gang crashing a sweet sixteen. This was the end of 1965, and the year had been a constant barrage of wall-rattling rock and roll, as American groups like Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, the Sir Douglas Quintet and the Strangeloves counterpunched the battalion of UK bands, but even in that crowded arena, the Wheels busted out. They sounded like they were racing the clock, like any minute the cops were going to come knocking. Credit Crewe with harnessing all this energy, and with coming up with the two songs to smash together—the guy knew hit hooks when he heard them; even Freddie Cannon's goofiest records were awfully peppy - but even at that point, there was a lot of focus on his supervisory role. When you picked up the Take a Ride album, the first words you read in the liner notes were: "When writing of artists that Bob Crewe has discovered…," and then the author goes on to cite such major discoveries as Billy & Lillie and Eddie Rambeau before getting around to mentioning the performers on this particular LP. (The notes also state that Lesley Gore – misspelled, by the way – "finds Mitch an unusually attractive performer in every way." Good to know. Also misspelled: the names of the Wheels' drummer and guitarist.)

Jenny Take a Ride! was an international hit: #10 US, #33 UK, and #44 Australia:

Their debut album, 1966's Take a Ride opened with Shake A Tail Feather, a party favorite:

It also contained three James Brown covers. Here's Please, Please, Please:

Their next single hit #17 in the US. It was the song that I mentioned in the prologue, Little Latin Lupe Lu:

Just in case you feel like comparing, here's the Righteous Brothers' original:

Their next two singles were both good, but less successful. Break Out peaked at #62 in the US, and Takin' All I Can Get could only reach #100. Here's Break Out:

What people wanted, apparently, was another upbeat raver, and with the Devil With a Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly medley, that's what people got. It's common to call certain rock records "explosive." This one is. In its original version by Motown artist Shorty Long, Devil With the Blue Dress is a measured, finger-snapping midtempo appreciation of a girl who walks by and renders her admirers mute ("the cats are too nervous to even say hi")." It's a very cool record that never made the pop charts, and Ryder and the Wheels completely transformed it into storming rock and roll. The short transition that Jim McCarty plays on guitar to lead into Little Richard's Good Golly Miss Molly is one of the most thrilling in all of rock, and later he uncorks a fevered solo. It was their greatest hit, peaking at #4 in the US and at #30 in Australia.

All the above songs were included in the band's 1966 album Breakout…!!! - their best work and one of the seminal albums of the 60s. In this album, you can also find the soul classic In The Midnight Hour:

Near the end of the Devil/Molly medley, Ryder blurts out "sock it to me," and the commercially savvy Mr. Crewe took that phrase and built a whole song around it, a rowdy, sexually suggestive single that, like its predecessor, peaked in the top 10 (#6).

The album, called Sock It To Me! too, also contained Wild Child:

Things were starting to fray. The whole medley gimmick was showing signs of fatigue (someone decided to merge the Marvelettes' Too Many Fish In the Sea with Three Little Fishies, a 1939 novelty hit for Kay Kyser). It sort of worked, the single peaking at #24 US:

The last hit Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels had was an Australia-only single (#25), called Linda Sue Dixon:

However, the Wheels wanted to rock more, Ryder was itching to expand his soul side by adding a horn section, and Crewe had a grand plan. A stupid plan, but a grand one: First off, the Wheels had to go.  Then there was the whole horn-section soul-revue strategy, with Ryder out front. With Devil With a Blue Dress and Sock It To Me -Baby! both smash hits, it made sense for New York City radio personality Murray the K to want Ryder on his big Easter 1967 "Music in the Fifth Dimension" engagement at the RKO Theater. Ryder's talent agent used his leverage: in order to get Ryder, Murray would also have to put two new British bands on the bill, Cream and the Who. The lineup was amazing; in addition to Ryder and these two virtually unknown - and previously unseen by American rock fans - UK bands, the week of shows included Wilson Pickett, the Blues Project and, on various nights, the Young Rascals, the Blues Magoos, Simon & Garfunkel.

As musician Binky Phillips recalls, Mitch appeared "in white hiphuggers and translucent white pirate shirt opened to his navel." What he also remember was "how incongruous the whole Ryder headlining extravaganza was: after the Who, Cream, the Rascals, and the Project, what Ryder was up to felt like old-school showbiz." It was as if Crewe wanted to make Mitch America's answer to Tom Jones. Steve Katz of the Blues Project (and later Blood, Sweat and Tears), recounts the scene in his memoir: "Mitch Ryder would get mobbed by a few audience members every show, an obvious setup that most of the rest of us musicians thought was funny and pathetic at the same time… Mitch would go back to his dressing room and literally cry after some shows." In his book, Ryder, whose memory places the event at the Paramount, admits, "when I sat backstage in the shadows and watched the other performers I began to realize that my time as a headliner was nearing an end."

And he was trapped in Crewe's vision for his career, which involved recording an album that the liner notes, by Don Snowden, of an actual Mitch Ryder CD compilation say "may be the most godawful piece of overblown dreck ever associated with a major artist." It's hard to know what Crewe was thinking. If he wanted to position Ryder as a soul crooner, there were other ways to go. Surely he'd heard what the Walker Brothers had done with their version of his own The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore, a perfect example of grandiose, emotional soul-pop. Or he could have looked to the Righteous Brothers, whose early records on Moonglow drew from the same R&B well as the early Wheels, but who, under Phil Spector, made powerful epic ballads. But he drowned Ryder, on side one of What Now My Love, in an ocean of schmaltz on misguided material: the title track, and If You Go Away (done hauntingly by Dusty Springfield, but mangled here), and Let It Be Me. You can imagine Scott Walker getting away with Crewe and Bob Gaudio's I Make a Fool of Myself, as Frankie Valli would, but Ryder just seems thrown into the deep end. The album package does Ryder no favors either, comparing him to Judy Garland, Mickey Mantle, and Bobby Kennedy. You feel the heavy hand of Crewe in that, and in this: "He has the poignancy, and the burning, and the excitement and the magnetism. He has the soulful look in his eyes and the heart note in his voice."

The title hit was released as a single and became a mid-table hit in the US (#30), but it ruined Mitch's rock cred. Here he is, obviously uncomfortable in suit and tie:

It was Crewe's Calamity. Side two was marginally better, a sprint through more rocking songs with the addition of Mike Bloomfield on guitar and keyboard player Barry Goldberg, who'd played on earlier Ryder tracks. Ryder says that Bloomfield approached him to become the lead singer of the band that became the Electric Flag, and that kind of makes sense. You can imagine Ryder at the Monterey Pop Festival with Bloomfield's band, the same weekend that Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Otis Redding all pointed to different ways of merging rock, blues, and soul. There was no reason Ryder - who'd jam at clubs with members of Cream and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band - couldn't have done something like Eric Burdon ended up doing with War, or Joe Cocker with the Grease Band. It wasn't lack of talent, just misdirection. The album What Now My Love bombed. It didn't even chart. But Ryder carried on. One of his final performances of 1967 was on the Cleveland TV show Upbeat, doing a duet under the closing credits with Otis Redding on the Stax hit Knock On Wood. The night of that show's taping was Redding's last appearance on television. He died in a plane crash the next day. Here's one of the songs with Bloomfield and Goldberg, a cover version of Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.

It took a while for Ryder to escape Crewe's clutches, and in the meantime Crewe released a best-of album, All the Heavy Hits, and a botch called Mitch Ryder Sings the Hits, a compilation of previously released covers from the Wheels period, remixed and overdubbed and utterly defanged. You're excused if you find those two album titles needlessly confusing. When Ryder was finally free to record without Crewe, his record company gave him the option of either cutting an album with Jeff Barry in Los Angeles or with Steve Cropper (and the rest of Booker T. and the M.G.'s) in Memphis. Ryder chose, no shock, to go with the cowriter of In the Midnight Hour and the band that backed up Otis, so he went to Tennessee and made The Detroit-Memphis Experiment, an album that was as well-played and well-sung as anyone might expect, but lacked top-notch material. Here's one of the better tracks, Sugar Bee:

He used the liner notes to vent, calling this experience "a relief for me, after being raped by the Music Machine that represents that 'heaven on earth' New York City b/w Los Angeles". Also, in capital letters: "Mitch Ryder is the sole creation of William S. Levise, Jr."... Another track from this album, this is I Get Hot:

... And this is Long Long Time:

Ryder took another shot with the band called Detroit, and at least in the opinion of the critics, he redeemed himself. In Rolling Stone, Lenny Kaye's review of the self-titled album began "Have no fear, Mitch Ryder is back," and that was true: working with a good producer, Bob Ezrin, and assembling a crack band including guitarist Steve Hunter and the Wheels' outstanding drummer, John Badanjek, he made an album that was a tough modernization of the Wheels approach. There was some Chuck Berry (Let It Rock) and some Wilson Pickett (I Found a Love), a terrific more-cowbell version of Lou Reed's Rock and Roll, and a swamp-rock take on Ron Davies' often-recorded It Ain't Easy. The timing was right for a Ryder resurgence, as Michigan bands like MC5, the Stooges (Iggy started doing Jenny Take a Ride live later in the decade), Brownsville Station, Grand Funk Railroad (spun off from the Wheels' contemporaries Terry Knight and the Pack), Catfish, the Amboy Dukes with Ted Nugent (who calls the Wheels "my all-time musical influence"), The Bob Seger System, The Rationals, and others were drawing attention to the area's muscular, unfrilly approach to rock.  Unfortunately, the album was issued by the Paramount Records label (owned by the Gulf & Western conglomerate) and thus received little in the way of marketing and promotion; like the Memphis album with Cropper, Detroit didn't connect with the public.

From this album, here's It Ain't Easy:

Here's their good version of  Rock 'N' Roll (Lou Reed liked it):

... And here's their also good version of the Stones' Gimme Shelter:

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.”

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band kept the spirit of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels alive during the '70s by incorporating the band's two top 10 medleys into one supersized "Detroit Medley," and you could hear Ryder's effect on Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band's Live Bullet (like Detroit, they did Let It Rock) and on John Mellencamp records like R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A. (Ryder is name-checked on it, along with Bobby Fuller, the Rascals, and others). Meanwhile, Ryder was absent from the American music world for quite a stretch. He emerged with two bold independent albums in the late '70s, the first of which is of particular interest to us.

Ryder recorded How I Spent My Vacation in 1978. Like his other post-Detroit Wheels albums, this hidden gem is an angry album, full of the original songs that he had inside of him but wasn't allowed to pursue back in the day. Prominent critic Robert Christgau wrote in his very favorable review: "What he remembers best, apparently, is sex with men, and the songs that result put across all the sin, fear, passion, love-and-hate, pleasure, and release that buggery seems to have involved for him. The lyrics sometimes lack coherence, and the music is a more sensitive version of the now outdated r&b-based guitar flash he favored with Detroit back in 1970. But the overall effect is revelatory."

That was a surprise at the time, even though later, in his autobiography, Mitch recounts 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 said, a few years ago. “I’m free to choose anything I want. Anybody on the planet is.”

Ryder has been married three times. He is especially hard on himself (in his book) for the ways he treated his wives. “Look at what they had to live with, to be honest,” he said. “Somebody extremely screwed up."

This conflicted view is evident in the songs of the album, as Christgau has noted. In Cherry Poppin, Ryder seems to be exhorting young men to come into his arms:

You will be first to feel this burst
of love and hate for Mommy
So dry your tears and dash your fears
roll over on your tummy

You are all men, you are a man
Now stop this shit, I swear to you again
Roll over a bit and left me stick it in
Nothin's queer, just the loss of fear

Cherry poppin', cherry poppin', love is grand
Cherry poppin', I hold it in my hand
Cherry poppin', poppa stick it unh
Cherry poppin', cherry poppin'

"It's about being gay," says Mitch frankly, in the liner notes of the 2009 CD-reissue. "It's based on my own experiences. The question of sexuality has been difficult for me, because I've been with a woman now for 21 years. In my autobiography I state simply that it's not about male or female, it's about who loves you."

"My partner could have been a man, but it ended up being a woman. There was a man I could very well have lived with, but he died. People make a big deal about sex, but the bottom line is happiness and love." Yet the song is very much about sex.

This youtube linked is geo-blocked for me, hopefully it works for you:

Otherwise, you can catch it on Deezer:

The Jon is a light jazzy shuffle concerning an affair with a hustler:

You know I love you cause you're my man
An' that's the way it must be
Bad mouth cheap talk goin' around about you
Don't let it bother me
No man moves me like you do

If the link is geo-blocked for you, there's always Deezer:

Freezin' In Hell is about the struggle between his religious convictions and his sexual desires:

I claim to come bearin' truth
but truth is breakin' my will
I - I wanna love you
like I said I should
I keep on trying still

Poster is an atmospheric gem of a song, whose lyrics contain all of Ryder's complicated and conflicted feelings over his desire for men. It is also a dig against his "hit making manager Bob Crew":

The poster said France certain circumstance
Broken romance dirty underpants
i was dreamin'
I started creamin'
N' gotta get away from the U.S.A.

social debts and dues - blues I could not pay
back to free man
virile semen

Branded with hot iron
caught on wire
My soul was on fire
Just a piece of meat hangin' in the street
Lookin' so discrete - rottin' in the heat
Don't it taste so sweet

This is real
This is love
Does it hurt you
it's supposed to

A drunk comes along singing my old songs
feeling up my ass
He must be upper class
cause he deals me
when he hugs me
He said don't you worry son you don't have to run
I'll tell you what to do - if you buy me one
And he smells bad - when he steals me
When you come past due
take what you need God will forgive you
A nation under God - where you put your trust
Tryin' to find some money fore ya take a bust
Oughta please you
Let me squeeze you

This is real
This is love
Does it hurt you
it's supposed to
hurt you darlin'

My ship just sank - my suit looks sad
my well's gone dry - my fruits all bad
Out of season
you know it's freezin'
This boy's not bold - I'm on his knees
The man's been told he can't speak chinese
There's a tease on - gentle treason
Everybody loves me
I'm gettin' stoned standing alone
The poster said France certain circumstance
Broken romance dirty underpants
I was dreamin'

This is real
This is love

Other good songs from this album: the hard-rocking Tough Kid, reflecting Ryder's working class experience:

Another good one; Passions Wheels explores his connection with religion:

... And here's Falling Forming, about Mitch's second wife and her abortion:

The follow-up album was called Naked But Not Dead. The opening track was Ain't Nobody White (Can Sing The Blues):

War is another notable track from the same album:

In 1981 he released Got Change For A Million? Red Scar Eyes is from this album:

In 1983, as part of the early eighties adopt-a-rock-veteran program - Springsteen took Gary U.S. Bonds, while Tom Petty claimed Del Shannon - Mellencamp offered to produce a new major-label Mitch Ryder album, Never Kick a Sleeping Dog, and for the first time since the '60s, Ryder had an album on the Billboard chart, and he even cracked the Top 100 with Prince's When You Were Mine.

The opening track of the album was B.I.G.T.I.M.E. This is a live version, a duet with John Cougar Mellencamp.

... And this is his duet with Marianne Faithfull, called A Thrill's A Thrill:

His next few albums weren't released in the US, but gathered enough attention in Germany. From 1986's In the China Shop, here's Where Is The Next One Coming From ?

... And here's I'm Not Sad Tonite:

But to grow as an artist, one must first make a living at
it. And in the 21st century, 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 Never Kick a Sleeping Dog. But time was taking its toll on Ryder’s following.

“The profile was 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 in a 2010 interview. “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 had worked with Ryder previously, agreed. The result, The Promise, initially appearing in the UK under the title Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet (The Promise), was released stateside on Ryder’s own Michigan Broadcasting Corporation label.

The album opens with Thank You Mama, a rocking eulogy for his parents.

Crazy Beautiful is a stellar ballad, but this video's sound quality is mediocre:

The only song in the album that is not original is the Motown classic What's Become of the Broken Hearted?  It's a deep soul showstopper:

This is a 2012 live version of the title track:

His latest record was released in February this year and is called Stick This In Your Ears. It contains a cover version of the classic Try A Little Tenderness:

You wonder: what if Ryder had been on a different label, like Atlantic, where the Rascals flourished, or Bang, where he could have worked with Bert Berns? What if he'd had creative direction that wasn't crafted purely to enrich Crewe publishing interests? If he'd kept working with Bloomfield and Goldberg in their group, or if Steve Katz and Al Kooper, at those RKO shows, thought to ask Ryder to sing in their new horn-driven rock band? Or if the Wheels had just stuck it out longer without impediments, and figured out how to bring their sound into the late '60s? At the start of A Face in the Crowd, Ryder sings, "The in crowd won't let me in," and that might be how he felt when he went back to his dressing room at Murray the K's Easter shows after doing his puffy-shirt act that was designed for Vegas, realizing that those bands that were opening for him were the future, and were on the brink of passing him by.


  1. Well now, here's another artist whom I never heard gay rumors about until now! I liked some of his songs well enough - I still have that picture cover single of Sock It To Me Baby - but as you pointed out, his fame didn't really survive past the 60s. At least for me. That video of him performing What Now My Love is just sad. You can see the defeat and embarrassment on his face. It's also notable how raspy his style got from '65 to '67. I haven't gotten through all the later music you presented but I am enjoying the selections from How I Spent My Vacation. Thanks for another surprising and informative column John!

    1. RM my friend, thanks for your well-thought and encouraging comment! I was as surprised as you were when I first read about it (a couple of years ago.) At first I thought it might just be idle speculation, but as I did further research I discovered his own words, so there was no doubt about it. He is obviously bisexual, who used to be very sexually active with both men and women, and who eventually found a woman he felt he could spend his life together with. The songs in How I Spent My Vacation were, as Christgau said, a revelation - and I'm really surprised how this album flew under every gay music lover's radar (including mine) back in 1978. Blame it on the lack of Internet and social media, I guess.

    2. PS: I can only imagine what went on backstage when, at 20, he was supporting equally young (and willing?) Dave Clark. I can only imagine... and I do.

  2. Hah! There's definitely a great story waiting to be told about those times. Calling Dustin Lance Black...

    1. Apparently there's so much that we don't know, my friend... At least we can make educated guesses. ;)

  3. I was coming of age in the late 1960's having been born in 1955. As the youngest of 9 (yes nine) I grew up listening to rock & roll and soul music. I clearly remember Mitch Ryder playing long and loud on my older brother's turntable. My father hated that kind of music. My mother on the other hand loved it. She was very hip. As I got older I would look Mitch Ryder up from time to time. I always thought he was underappreciated. Next to Michael McDonald I think he's about the best R&B singer America has ever had. Thank you so much for this article. It's was a little surprising to find it on a 'gay' blog (I too had never heard about his bisexuality - but who cares anyway). Thank you for this very well written and informative article. I always thought Mitch Ryder was underrated.

    1. Thanks for your valuable input and your kind words, Elaine! I am writing these stories to bring back fond memories to those old enough to remember and to create the incentive for the younger ones to dig deeper. Thanks for giving me the courage to continue!

  4. Devil with a blue dress sure takes me back. We would wear gogo boots, roll our skirts up to our ass and dance.