Born William Levise Jr., February 26, 1945, in Hamtramck, MI; married twice. Addresses: Agent-Entertainment Services International, 6400 Pleasant Park Dr., Chanhassen, MN 55317.
As front man for one of the most raucuous "blue-eyed soul" bands of the 1960s, Detroit's Mitch Ryder howled high-energy medleys of rock and blues standards. His hard-driving "Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly" has a firm place in the canon of infectious dance tunes. But commercial success was fleeting for Ruder. His later work, while hailed by critics, has been largely ignored in his native country, though he has retained a large following in Europe three decades after disappearing from the U.S. pop charts.
Ryder's father was a big band radio singer. He was born as William Levise Jr. on February 26, 1945, in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck. Billy Levise grew up in the all-white suburb of Warren but learned about rhythm-and-blues music while spending summers with his grandmother in Detroit. Black culture attracted him; he told Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder that "it seemed a lot more vibrant than goin' out to see Fabian."
By the time he was in high school, Levise was performing under the name Billy Lee in a group called Tempest. At 17, he started singing in a feverish Detroit soul club, the Village, and recorded an R&B single ("That's the Way It's Gonna Be/Fool for You") for a local gospel label, Carrie. Soon he started playing gigs at black clubs as the lead singer for a vocal trio, the Peps, whose other two members were black. His vocals were so soulful that fans sometimes mistook him for a light-skinned black man. His interracial experience set him apart in the days when the Motown sound was just starting to break through the color bar on mainstream pop radio stations.
Tiring of the constant turnover in the Peps, Ryder, in 1964, formed his own band, Billy Lee & the Rivieras, which included drummer John Badanjek, bass player Jim McCallister, and guitarists Jim McCarty and Joe Kubert. Soon they attracted a fanatical following as the house band at the Walled Lake Casino, the hottest spot on the Michigan teen scene, where they opened for Motown acts. They recorded a version of the Contours hit "Do You Want to Dance?" for a local label, Hyland. Having played with white and black musicians for white and black audiences, Levise had quickly shown a mastery of the R&B-driven rock music that was galvanizing young people worldwide.
When legendary record producer Bob Crewe saw Billy Lee and the Rivieras steal the show at a Dave Clark Five concert, he recognized their potential and immediately signed the five Detroit boys to a contract with his New Voice label. In New York for the contract signing, they picked the name Mitch Ryder out of the Manhattan phone book. Because there already was a rock group called the Rivieras, the group was renamed the Detroit Wheels.
Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels released their first single, "I Need Help," in the fall of 1965. It went nowhere. In December they recorded a medley, covering two rock standards, Little Richard's "Jenny, Jenny" and Chuck Willis's "C.C. Rider." Called "Jenny Take a Ride," the single was an instant success, hitting number ten on the Billboard charts in January 1966. Two months later, the group's cover of the Righteous Brothers' "Little Latin Lupe Lu" peaked at number 17. Their biggest hit followed that fall. It was an infectious remake of an obscure Motown record by Shorty Long, "Devil With a Blue Dress On" and another Little Richard screamer, "Good Golly Miss Molly." The provocative, hyperkinetic song reached number four on the Billboard charts in October 1966. Becoming an all-time favorite of the Baby Boomer generation, it was listed as one of the 100 best singles of the 1963-1988 era by Rolling Stone magazine.
Ryder's best songs with the Wheels had the electricity of live performances. The medleys became the group's concert trademark. At a time when black groups were finally busting through with "crossover" hits, Ryder and the Wheels consistently crossed over in the other direction, with their recordings always faring well on the R&B charts. In all, Ryder's string of hits in 1966 and 1967 presaged a later era when racial barriers in music became meaningless.
Ryder and the Wheels recorded two more hits in early 1967, but their formula was already sounding predictable. "Sock It To Me - Baby!" charted at number six despite being banned on some radio stations for its sexual innuendos. Ryder's most bizarre medley was a merging of the Marvelettes' Motown hit "Too Many Fish in the Sea" and an old ditty dating back to 1939, "Three Little Fishes." When that medley managed only 24 on the charts, Crewe convinced Ryder that the Wheels' magic had run its course.
The group split up, and at Crewe's behest Ryder became a solo act, singing Vegas-style ballads. It was an inexplicable transformation, taking one of the most soulful white singers and remaking him as a glitzy crooner backed by sticky-sweet strings. Only one of Ryder's solo efforts for Crewe, "What Now My Love," made the Billboard charts, peaking at number 30.
When his fling as a Las Vegas lounge singer ended, Ryder broke bitterly with Crewe. Despite his string of hits, Ryder reportedly made only $15,000 as a Crewe property. Ryder traveled to Memphis, recording a unique album called The Detroit-Memphis Experiment with guitarist Steve Cropper. The 1969 release featured blues legends like Booker T & the MGs. While it was a commercial flop, it was a critical success. Ryder's disgust with Crewe's handling was evident in liner notes where he complained of "being raped by the music machine" and noted pointedly that "Mitch Ryder is the sole creation of William Levise, Jr."
Next, Ryder reunited with drummer Badanjek and formed a group called Detroit. An eponymous album released in 1972 featured a pulsating recording of the standard "Rock'N Roll" which became a favorite of musician Lou Reed. But while Ryder was earning kudos within the ranks of fellow rock musicians, his commercial career was going downhill. His new group burned itself out in short time. "We used to take acid just to stay awake, man," Ryder told Loder. "We couldn't have made a second album if they had wanted us to." Bitter and depressed and battling drugs and alcohol and a throat ailment, Ryder moved to Denver and worked for five years as a laborer in a warehouse, writing songs at night.
In 1978, Ryder re-emerged with a new eight-piece backup band and an album appropriately titled How I Spent My Summer Vacation on his own label, Seeds and Stems. Loder called the album Ryder's "unacknowledged masterpiece ... stark and transfixing." Written with his second wife Kim, the album's key songs were graphic accounts of homosexual encounters that Loder notes "may have been a bit too astonishing" for the era. Two years later Ryder followed with Naked But Not Dead on the same label. These brooding, dark albums helped trigger a renewed interest in Ryder in Europe, where his popularity eclipsed anything he enjoyed in the United States.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Ryder continued to churn out albums, mostly for the German label Line, including Live Talkies, Got Change For a Million, Smart Ass, In the China Shop, La Gash, Rite of Passage, Beautiful Toulang Sunset and Red Blood, White Mink. In 1983, John Mellencamp produced an American release for Ryder on his Riva label, Never Kick a Sleeping Dog. It featured a gritty cover of Prince's "When You Were Mine" and a sizzling duet with Marianne Faithful on "A Thrill's A Thrill." Both Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen claimed Ryder as a major influence on their work. Springsteen used some of Ryder's hits in his show-closing "Detroit Medley" during concerts in the 1980s. But a real comeback in the United States still eluded Ryder.
Ryder's popularity abroad allowed him enough income from record sales to keep him in the business. Into his 50s he was still working hard at his craft, writing and producing songs and performing at casinos, fairs and bars in Michigan, the Midwest and Europe. Unlike other performers who gained fame in the 1960s, the so-called "Godfather of Motor City Rock'n'Roll" was still churning out fresh music in the 1990s, rather than relying solely on his heart-pounding blasts from the past.
by Michael Betzold
Mitch Ryder's Career
Professional singer under stage name Billy Lee with the Tempest, c. 1961; recorded "That's the Way It's Gonna Be/"Fool for You," Carrie, c. 1963; singer with the Peps, 1963-64; singer with Billy Lee & the Rivieras, renamed Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, 1964-67; released New Voice singles "Jenny Take A Ride" 1965; "Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly" 1966; "Sock It To Me - baby" 1967; became solo performer, 1967; released The Detroit-Memphis Experiment, Dot, 1969; formed band Detroit, 1971, released album Detroit; worked as laborer, Denver, 1972-77; resumed music career with How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Seeds & Stems 1978; Naked But Not Dead, Seeds & Stems, 1980; released Never Kick a Sleeping Dog, Riva, 1983; released several albums for German label Lane in 1980s and 1990s.
- Selected discography
- with the Detroit Wheels
- Take a Ride , New Voice, 1966.
- Breakout...!! , New Voice, 1966.
- Sock It to Me , New Voice, 1966.
- Greatest Hits , Roulette, 1987.
- Rev Up: The Best of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels , Rhino, 1990.
- All Hits , Sundazed, 1997.
- with Detroit
- Detroit, Paramount , 1971, reissued, 1987.
- solo albums
- What Now My Love? , Dyno Voice, 1967.
- All the Heavy Hits , Crewe, 1967.
- The Detroit-Memphis Experiment , Dot, 1969.
- How I Spent My Summer Vacation , Seeds & Stems, 1978.
- Naked But Not Dead , Seeds & Stems, 1980.
- Got Change For a Million , Line, 1981.
- Live Talkies , Line, 1982.
- SmartAss , Line, 1982.
- Never Kick a Sleeping Dog , Riva, 1983.
- Red Blood and White Mink , Line, 1989.
- Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
- Erdewine, Michael, editor, All Music Guide to Rock, Miller Freeman Books, 1997.
- Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Stanley Sadie, editors, New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Macmillan, 1986.
- Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness, 1992.
- Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Banson, 1991.
- People, August 13, 1985.
- Rolling Stone, September 1, 1983; September 8, 1988; February 9, 1989.