Ryder's Storm

Motor City Mitch weathers the long road of rock and roll

Rock and roll is supposed to sound like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
Rock and roll was born to be wild, loud, angry, aggressive, cocky, horny, irrepressibly youthful. Listen to the frenetic gospel piano vamp at the beginning of "Jenny Take a Ride!" It sets the tone, building the tension to the snapping point with a quick cut to Chuck Willis's "C.C. Rider," until you get to the guitar break seguing into Little Richard's dizzying homage to hormones . This is the stuff that defies you to drive within the speed limit (although you won't get far trying to explain that to the Highway Patrol). It's drivin' music and driven music.

But it was really Ryder's voice -- a remarkable instrument even after 30 years of shoutrock -- that propelled the Motor City badboys to the crest.

Fourteen records in the Top 100, five in the Top 40, and three Top 10s. Where do you go after that? What place is there for a fortysomething rocker whose glory days are now immortalized on jukeboxes and classic-rock/oldies radio? If you're Mitch Ryder, it takes you on tour every few years, through the States and Europe, living out of hotel rooms, eating chicken and dumplings from the Crackerbarrel, hoping folks will remember your name, your songs, your undeniably important place in history.

On the first leg of their latest tour, Ryder and his band have just pulled into Florida after surfing the long stretch of asphalt from Mississippi A Biloxi, St. Louis Bay.... How's the tour going? "Ehhhh, next subject," the weary warrior manages, with a little chuckle behind his demurral.

Seems there have been a few cancellations along the way. "Not enough to wreck the tour, but distressing signals about the economy," Ryder explains. There was a time when the excitement, the energy, the sheer love of the music was enough to keep the big Wheel rolling. You can hear it in his reminiscences of Detroit clubland, where the underage white kid was honing his soul rasp and his showmanship, at joints like the Village.

"The famous Village," he recalls, warming to the topic. "It was quite an experience. My peers were going to the football game on a Friday night or dances, getting drunk and trying to feel up girls, and I was downtown watching drug addicts practice, and transsexuals and cross-dressers, and every element of lowlife that walked the Earth. They all turned out to be human beings with some very eccentric problems, but much different from what I was being exposed to in the all-white suburbs." Once they heard him sing, the all-black audiences had no problem accepting him on their turf.

It was a love of black music that determined Ryder's (born William Levise, Jr.) road. In fact his first side was cut for the Detroit gospel label Carrie in 1962, and pre-Wheels he fronted a black band called the Peps. It wasn't easy getting there. "On the radio," he recalls, "mostly what was being played then was very homogenized, no grit to it, no edge, no challenge." Over the phone Ryder sings a snatch of "How Much Is that Doggy in the Window" to illustrate his point. Then one day he bought a transistor radio, all the rage at the time, and his life changed. "At full volume, at best, they sounded like they were done in the toilet 50 miles away," he says of the songs blasting from the decidedly low-fi radios. "But you couldn't miss the beat. I started listening to this station out of Nashville and there was one out of Chattanooga, and the signal was real strong and at certain times of night I could pick it up. I'd listen to that and WJLB out of Detroit, which was a black radio station. And I couldn't believe that music like that even existed." He pauses, perhaps to savor his renewed amazement. "Why didn't somebody tell me?"

At the Village, Ryder met up with some young white guys who shared his passion for black music, and Billy and the Rivieras, the hub of what would become the Wheels, was formed. A copyright conflict with another band called the Rivieras sparked their destiny, and the 1965 testosterone-fueled smash "Jenny Take A Ride!" cemented it. The hip-swiveling, hair-tossin' "Little Latin Lupe Lu" was the next Wheel song to chart, right before 1966's "Devil with a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly" medley forever reserved them a place on everyone's dream jukebox.

A regional hit by Shorty Long in Detroit, "Devil with a Blue Dress On" was placed into the collective consciousness of rockers nationwide. "Shorty had a very slow, midtempo funk groove to it," Ryder says. "And we just put it into our little teenage heads that we were gonna make it a little faster and we came up with the right formula." It was the same formula that had worked so well on "Jenny" A pairing a Little Richard song with a relatively obscure R&B nugget. With "Devil" the concept was more fully realized, the simple guitar break between songs accompanied by one of the most teeth-rattling drum rolls ever laid to wax, Ryder's voice even rawer, the tension almost unbearable. The first thing his role model Little Richard said to him was, "Ooooh, my soul!" Later Bruce Springsteen would play the medley live, in either a tribute to, or an attempt to equal, Ryder's earlier work.

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.

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