Mitch Ryder

High octane, turbo, high performance, super charged Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels didn't need to hail from the Motor City for those adjectives to be tossed their way, but it was certainly appropriate that they called Motown home. It was Mitch and The Wheels who served as the musical bridge between the Motown soul factory and the high energy, take no prisoners rock 'n' roll that would roar out of Detroit via Iggy & The Stooges, MC5, Ted Nugent and Bob Seger.

With Ryder, it wasn't attitude or public outrage or politics that generated the charge you could simply hear it in the music. Ryder hit during the mid-'60s when AM radio was going through a golden era courtesy of Motown, Stax, the British Invasion, Aretha, JB, and any number of garage band one-hit wonders. But no one on the radio then could match Mitch and company for pure visceral excitement, no one else could make the hair stand up on the back of your neck and a wild-eyed gleam creep into your eyes because you just know that something was going to happen.

The explosive quality was there from the very start. Listen to the way the chords introducing "Jenny Take A Ride" are chomping at the bit to swoop down into the double-time mid-section, or how John Badanjek's thundering bass drum trigger's the ecstatic roll that kicks off "Devil With A Blue Dress On". And the Wheels must have known what they had witness the confidence-even cockiness-of telegraphing their punch forever on "Little Latin Lupe Lu", building expectations to fever pitch before hammering down the riff with Jim McCarty's lead lick trailing behind. And nailing it big time. One punch, KO, Mike Tyson-style.

The records worked because they perfectly captured the kinetic frenzy of the live performances that had been the group's stock in trade since they first joined forces in Detroit early in 1964. Born William Levise, Jr., Ryder was performing as Billy Lee in a high school band called Tempest before turning heads in a black Detroit soul club called the Village. At 17, he was skilled enough to record an R&B single ("That's The Way It's Going To Be/Fool For You") for the Detroit gospel label Carrie in 1962 and to start making gigs fronting The Peps, a black vocal trio.

Levise was appearing with The Peps at the Village early in 1964 when he ran across a group that included McCarty, bassist Earl Elliot, and Badanjek. Together with rhythm guitarist Joe Kubert, they joined forces as Billy Lee & The Rivieras and by mid-summer had attracted a fanatical local following that caught the ear of Motor City DJ Bob Prince. Prince began booking Lee & The Rivieras as an opening act at a club/casino north of Detroit, but their live performances were so potent that the unrecorded group was soon headlining over major Motown artists. Prince then arranged for The Rivieras to record a tape in Badanjek's basement, and that demo brought 4 Seasons producer Bob Crewe to a Detroit performance where The Rivieras opened for The Dave Clark Five. They torched the hometown audience for 90 minutes, Crewe was hooked, and in February, 1965, the five Detroit teenagers relocated to New York City and bided their time for a few months playing Greenwich Village clubs for survival money.

Late in 1966, the "Devil With A Blue Dress On" & "Good Golly Miss Molly" medleys exploded over the airwaves and indelibly stamped the high energy Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels sound on anyone within an earshot as they hit #4 on the charts.

"I Like It Like That" spotlighted Ryder's ability to tone down for the kind of slow-drag, New Orleans R&B that emphasized his smooth delivery and immaculate phrasing. And he showed real signs as a midnight rambler songwriter on "I Had It Made" (musically, a thinly veiled re-write of James Brown's "Out Of Sight") and the intriguing "Baby Jane", which sounds like a bizarre but happening cross of Sir Douglas Quintet and Velvet Underground.

Early in 1967, prototypical, riff-rockin "Sock It To Me-Baby!" became Ryder's final Top 10 single, despite being banned on several stations for being too sexually suggestive.

It would be a mistake to consign Mitch Ryder solely to the past- he's shown too much resilience to be counted out. He is currently enjoying another surge in European popularity and continues to revisit for live performances. There's certainly nothing nostalgic about the charged music here - no one, but no one, ever kicked out the rockin' R&B jams better than Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels.

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