A Chat with Mitch Ryder


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By Dennis Cook

Americans tend to have short musical memories. Our culture is so obsessed with newness and fashion that it's easy for pioneers to be dusted away with the sands of time. It's a pity because understanding who broke the ground one walks on is informative and often revelatory in a really joyful way. Case in point, Mitch Ryder, whose forward thinking, electrifying merger of muscular, tightly wound rock and propulsive, sweaty R&B in the 1960s lies at the root of endlessly lauded critics darlings like The Stooges and the MC5, fellow Detroiters who picked up their early cues from Ryder and his phenomenal band The Detroit Wheels, whose influence can be felt in a crazy number of artists over the decades. Ryder and his partners in crime became a near instant international sensation with singles like “Devil With A Blue Dress On," “Little Latin Lupe Lu," and “I Like It Like That." It's the kind of start that signifies a lifetime of recognition, but all too quickly found Ryder outside the big spotlight in the 1970s and 80s. However, Ryder never stopped making music, finding an enthusiastic audience for new music and not just his hits overseas, particularly in Germany where the man remains a major star who tours annually and regularly releases new albums.

Which brings us to today and the recent release of The Promise (released February 14), Ryder's first new album Stateside in 30 years. Personal, groovy and heartfelt, The Promise was produced by Don Was and features a lean, together band of players with “music in their blood," as Ryder notes in the liner notes. Strong of voice and writing his own material, Ryder escapes the oldies circuit that consumes so many artists that had hits back in the day. His dedication to new material—and the kind of work he and only he wants to be doing—is evident in this life-filled song cycle.

JamBase scored a few minutes with the rock legend to discuss his new album, his storied career, and his many irons in the fire.

JamBase: You've come up in a lot of conversations when I talk to any musician from Detroit, especially Ted Nugent, who gives you complete credit for being the root source of the Detroit rock 'n' roll sound.

Mitch Ryder: He's been very consistent with that in any interview he's ever done. Ted and I go way back to when we were doing Battle of the Bands and his mom was his road manager and also the head of his fan club. She gave Ted his business acumen, which he still enjoys. He was energetic and crazy even back then, but unfortunately, he came up against someone with those same qualities back then [laughs]. So, when we'd have our appearances I had a little bit more going on the theatrical side, which made it pretty interesting. Our show was a little more entertaining at that point, but he's overcome that now [laughs].

JamBase: How did you come up with your sound in the early days? Even in an era where a lot of bands stood out, you made a real impression.

Mitch Ryder: We didn't try to get a formula. The energy is solely the product of being teenagers—we all had an abundance of it. So, whatever song we played it was going to be ten times faster than the original. A good example is “Devil With The Blue Dress On." If you ever heard the original [version] by Shorty Long and you played our [version] you'd hear the difference right away. Shorty's was real slinky and crawling along. We threw that out the window and just went nuts on it.

All my training had been through an urban experience working with black musicians and singers. That was my environment, experience and presentation all wrapped up into one. And then I met a group of skilled rock 'n' roll players, and once we melded those two different categories into a hybrid the product that came out was this R&B rock sound that nobody else had at the time. Then, we added the theatre [elements], which was very prominent in my schooling, so I suggested we inserted it into the show. Nobody else was doing that at the time. They were just getting up and playing and pretty much standing still and singing. There was no theater, but I'd been to enough James Brown shows to understand that you have to have theatre when you're performing. It really brings a lot to the stage in addition to the music.

Do you still find that theatrical element important to performing live?

As much as I can! I have two titanium hips now and they don't respond to mental commands the way muscle and tissue do. I certainly don't have the physical energy I once did but my voice is killer, and that's all the result of starting to use in-ear monitors. Those saved my voice and improved it. Up until five or six years ago, I was constantly battling guitars, and it was not only making me deaf but it was making me afraid to take risks and reach for notes because I couldn't hear if I was making them or not. Once I put the in-ear monitors in my head I could tell whether I was hitting the notes I was trying for, and I created a whole other half-octave to my range. It's really blowing my mind what it did for my voice.

Your voice on the new record is out of hand. I don't know if I've ever heard this range from you on any other album.

There's some notes I went for that I haven't gone after since the old Bob Crewe days. It's unexplainable to me, and the live shows are the same—they're very, very good in that way. I'm thrilled because it gives me the opportunity to really play around with melodies and get a lil' more soulful than I had been, to really use my voice and move it around like an instrument instead of just a little tape recorder. Why not if you can?

How did you hook up with Don Was to make this record?

We go back a ways. I made an appearance on a Was (Not Was) recording, Born To Laugh At Tornados (1997), and Don did a 12-inch dance single of me doing Dylan's “Like A Rolling Stone." We did a couple other singles together that he engineered, and I've done a few of his segments at the Concert of Colors, which is a tradition in Detroit. He's familiar with my voice and knows what I'm capable of, and he's even been quoted as saying I'm probably the best white rhythm & blues singer in America. When they asked him why, he said that I'm the strongest.

So, I called him on the phone and said, “Don, I'm really dying here in America. Europe is fine but I'm dying here and not getting as much work as I used to. I've gotta do something to get back into the eye of the public. What would it take for us to do an album?" The conversation lasted maybe five minutes and then I was out in Hollywood recording.

Is it a frustration to you that many people have this limited soundbite impression of you as simply the “Devil With A Blue Dress" guy? You have decades of music that follow that, but America isn't good at keeping up with artists after their soundbite is established.

No, they're not. No, they're not. That's why kids get edgy every eight minutes because that's when commercials come on with TV [laughs]. It all has to do with our culture. Europe looks at historical culture a WHOLE lot differently than we do in America. We're very much a disposable society, and that's true of almost everything we produce including our art. Just look at the development of cell phones in the last two years, where they've gone through 30 or 40 different changes and adaptations. In our culture we don't think in long terms. We think in short terms and instantly gratifying moments. So, since “Devil With The Blue Dress On" was such a monster hit—it was in the Top 20 for three-and-a-half months, and in that time it made three trips in and out of the Top 10. Think about that: you're in the Top 10, you go out, you come back, you go out, you come back—crazy. That was the result of two forces pushing it. It was a Motown song so it benefited from all the promotion people that Barry Gordy had, and then you had the promotion staff Bob Crewe had at Bell Records. That kept it up there for a long, long time.

So, that's why people think of it as the defining Mitch Ryder song. Well, that and the near total absence of Mitch Ryder from the [American] public landscape. I didn't wait around for someone to rediscover me. I started a career for myself over in Europe, and that's working out really well because it allows me to do contemporary material and I don't have to be assigned to the role of an oldies act.

When I talk to others who came to fame in the same era as you, they tell similar stories. But if you go outside the United States you have other options.

It is frustrating but you can't be bitter about it. It's just the way we communicate. It's no fault of my fans and no fault of mine. It's the people who dish it out that have the game plan wrong. Germany is to rock 'n' roll what France was to jazz. Ex-patriots will find more than their share in a place like Berlin, for example, which is where my label and office is. That's a very dynamic city filled with talent, and not just German talent—New Yorkers, people from L.A., and studios and authors and playwrights and artists of all stripes and mediums. They find these cheap lofts in the East, which are becoming more expensive now because the real estate developers figured it out. Probably everyone who escaped over the Wall came back to the East [laughs]. My wife and I looked at a place that still had bullet holes in the walls from street fighting between the Russians and the Germans. It was incredible, and this only a couple years ago when you could still pick them up for dirt cheap.

How is it different to make music with a primarily European audience in mind?

If recognition is what you want, it's a very good opportunity, and you can use that as a base and not feel inhibited about creating. What I do and how I view Berlin is the freedom [it gives me]. Germany, in particular, has been good to me. Because of my experiences with Bob Crewe and working under those constraints, when we booked the first studio session in Germany, I said, “What do you guys want me to do?" And they looked at me with these blank stares and said, “Don't you mean what do YOU want US to do? This is your session." Then it hit me: You're an artist now, pal, do your thing. So, I started and I haven't stopped since. I'm free to do whatever I want, free to create. That's something I had when I first got interested in making music, and it was something taken away by making music with Bob Crewe. He had his own little Tin Pan Alley set up in the same building as Atlantic Records. Every day he would go to his writers for songs to give to different artists he was managing and recording, and I was one of those. We were literally dissuaded from creating our own material, and in my own case, he was bent on making me into a singular star and dumping my group, which he succeeded at during a time everybody else was going completely the other way.

What are your plans for the United States now that you have this new calling card in The Promise?

My American fans just haven't had the full Mitch Ryder experience [for a long time], and this record is the introductory card to try and get some interest in order to bring the whole [European] catalog over here so people can get caught up, even sell it at a discount so people can become familiar with it. Then, once they're schooled in it, come out with a new studio album made in America. And in the meantime, I've put out my book [Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride As A Rock & Roll Legend—available here]. I'm also deeply involved in creating a musical, and I want it to be good theatre—the crowning jewel of my achievements. The working title is “Hide Your Love Away," which I borrowed from The Beatles. I have a great affection for John Lennon, who talked me out of committing suicide [as detailed in Ryder's new autobiography].

At a time when a lot of artists are getting ready to put their feet up, you're busier than ever.

What are they going to kick their feet up for and how are they going to kick their feet up? And what are they going to kick their feet up on? An empty beer can? From what I understand, most of my peers from my age group need to keep working, or they have other jobs and have had them for years now. A lot of my peers, if they're still touring, have a really good show but it's about nostalgia. And being honest, a lot of them have day jobs. I've been blessed because we don't live a lavish life but we live and I'm free to do what I want. So, I thank Bob Crewe for that. I don't like him for what he did to my group and our music, but I thank him for the fame because it's allowed me to do what I love for my entire life.

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This story appears courtesy of JamBase.
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