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Ryder and the Wheels weren't the only rumblings being heard from the Michigan factory town, as Berry Gordy assembled his stable of artists: Smokey Robinson, Marv Johnson, even Jackie Wilson for a time. "They had those sort of slick, synchronized dance steps and all that stuff," Ryder says of his Motown competition. "And when you compared that to the other black acts we were watching, like James Brown, for instance, there was no comparison. We knew which way we had to go." The Wheels chose JB. "We had a routine where the musicians would change instruments on stage, and dance out front and take our clothes off, leap into the air and catch each other. That's what we built our local reputation on, that sort of theatrics."
Their local rep was also pushed along by the tireless efforts of Ryder's folks. Although busy rearing eight kids, they helped the band secure gigs and even financed one of the records, a big step for the strapped working-class family. "We couldn't go much further locally then we did with them at the helm," says Ryder.
When the band did break out, they broke out big, charting on both sides of the color barrier thanks to Ryder's racially ambiguous vocals. Groups such as the Righteous Brothers and the Rascals were also mining this blue-eyed soul territory. "The record companies were searching for something on a different plateau than what they were getting with Pat Boone," Ryder notes. "They realized that there wasn't going to be a way to stop the music, so they wanted to get something that was at least acceptable to the white kids, as close to being authentic as they could. So they started to search for blue-eyed soul."
In later years cries of racial ripoff would chafe worse than the tight swashbuckler outfits manager Bob Crewe had the band wear. "I just can't understand it," Ryder grumbles. "The argument being, Was it okay coming up as a young boy to emulate your heroes A and if my heroes happened to be black, why isn't it okay to emulate them?"
Looking back, Ryder has regrets. The original material Crewe prevented them from recording, the drugs and alcohol he kicked just a few years back, the cigarettes he has not, the lack of business savvy in the early days (royalty checks still trickle in from occasional airplay, but there's no way to calculate or reclaim the lost green from the salad years). Ryder says he wants to do it right this time around, recording a set of fresh tracks in Berlin with a German band, hoping to get off the road, see if he can sell the new stuff Stateside. He knows it'll be an uphill battle, even though he strongly believes in the material. "If you're not neatly placed in a little box on the shelf A and the American consumers have been taught this by the fucking corporations because they can make more money if they specialize in these things and not have to explain it. If it fits into that little box, then it's good. Which is just not true."
So don't put Mitch Ryder in that nostalgia box just yet. There's still some jams to be kicked out and Ryder knows it, claiming the new album is, if not the very best, at least the second best of his career. "I haven't taken care of myself very well through the years," Ryder reflects. "I don't know what it is in my personality that makes it hard for me to allow people to lead me, but that's been the problem. I guess I'm kinda anti-authority deep down."
Mitch Ryder is the sound of rock and roll. Deep down.
Mitch Ryder performs at 9:00 p.m., Sunday, at the Stephen
Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs $10 and $15.