Mitch Ryder’s Don Was-produced ‘The Promise’ is first new album in 20 years
Produced by fellow Detroit native Don Was, Ryder returns to his Motor City rock and soul roots.
DETROIT, Mich. — Before Jack White, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger or Iggy Pop, Detroit’s number one rock export was Mitch Ryder. Fronting the Detroit Wheels, Ryder spun out a string of rock ’n’ soul hits — “Jenny Take a Ride,” “Devil With a Blue Dress On / Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Sock It to Me, Baby” — in the mid-’60s that landed in the charts alongside the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Ryder’s new album, The Promise(his first U.S. release in nearly 30 years), due out February 13, 2012 on his Michigan Broadcasting Corporation label, finds him in prime form. The disc’s dozen tracks feature eleven full-bodied originals plus a live cover for the Motown classic “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” Ryder teamed up with acclaimed producer Don Was (a fellow Detroit native) to create a record that’s full of soul yet grounded in rock: music that acknowledges the past while looking forward. Ryder says he writes all of his songs from personal experiences. “When I am in the writing mode, I don’t listen to other music. I just shut down and draw on what my mind and my soul tell me to do.”
The Promisestarts off capturing a particularly personal moment with “Thank You Mama.” This Motown-esque rocker serves as a eulogy to his parents. Ryder wasn’t able to attend either his mother or father’s funerals for various reasons (including a promoter who threatened to sue him if he went to this dad’s funeral) and he wrote this song, he reveals, “because I needed to get it out of my system. I never got to tell them thank you.”
The title track is a deeply soulful number — both through the music and the message. Combining a slow-burning rhythm with incendiary social commentary, this powerful ballad offers an unflinching portrait of a working-class American who is struggling to make ends meet yet holding on to “the promise” of a better tomorrow, when “my child will have doctors and my child will have good schools.” The song’s gritty quality, with its rock-edged funkiness, also fuels tunes like “One Hair,” “The Way We Were” and “Junky Love.”
However, it’s not a Mitch Ryder album without some party music too. The Latin-flavored “Let’s Keep Dancing” shakes up the disc’s tempo with a tango. Similarly, the piano-based ballad “Crazy Beautiful” gives Ryder an opportunity to show his vocal range extends beyond that of a belter. This song also provided him a chance to perform with one of his heroes, keyboardist Patrick Leonard. Leonard led the ’90s band Toy Matinee, whose sole album, Ryder says, stands as “one of the best pieces of American music I’ve ever heard.” When Was said that Leonard was working in the same studio where they were recording, Ryder went over to meet him. “I was brought to tears during the conversation,” Ryder admits. “That’s how powerful an impact he had on me.”
Ryder was also thrilled to have Was onboard. The two met when the famed producer worked in the studio where Ryder was making his 1980 release Naked But Not Dead. Although they’ve worked together over the years (“Brokenhearted” comes from one of Was’ annual “Concert of Colors” in Detroit), this was the first time they collaborated on an entire album. Ryder reveals that Was didn’t ask to see his lyrics before recording the songs and told Ryder that the only other artist similarly treated was Bob Dylan, which Ryder found a high compliment. Ryder also raved how Was was “able to bring the real exact sound of my voice as it exists today without using any gimmicks.”
Recording in Los Angeles’ historic Henson Studios (formerly A&M Records and originally Charles Chaplin’s studios), Was used his team of talented players (keyboardist Jamie Mahuberac, bassist Reggie McBride, guitarist Randy Jacobs and drummer James Gadsen) to give Ryder all that needed — whether it was an explosive guitar solo or a soulful groove. Ryder re-did one of his older songs, “My Heart Belongs To Me,” because he realized correctly that this band could give it the proper Stax sound that he wanted.
Born William Levise Jr., Ryder grew up in working class Detroit and started working as a singer while still a teen. He performed in a black soul club and fronted the Peps, a black vocal trio. As Billy Lee, he led a popular local band, the Rivieras. After Four Seasons producer Bob Crewe was blown away by one of their live performances, the group re-located to New York; however, they had to change their name due to the Rivieras of “California Sun” fame. Ryder, as the story goes, found his new stage name while flipping through the Manhattan phonebook — and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels were born.
With Crewe at the helm, Ryder and the Wheels quickly developed a potent music style that infused R&B with high-octane rock ’n’ roll. Their biggest success came with the “Devil with a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly” medley, which hit #4 on the charts and was famously re-done by Bruce Springsteen. Ryder says the band’s magic came from wanting “our records to sound live,” adding that “listeners responded to the energy.”
However, the success came with a price. Although they wrote their own material before, that changed when Crewe took control of the band. Ryder states, “We were told in no uncertain terms that we would be doing songs that Mr. Crewe presented to us and all he was doing when he wasn’t writing originals was throwing us covers. It was screwed up.”
By 1967, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels had splintered. Ryder later went to Memphis to do an album with Booker T. and the MGs before returning home to front a band called Detroit. Their one release included such a powerful rendition of Lou Reed’s “Rock N’ Roll” that Reed nabbed guitarist Steve Hunter for his own band.
While The Promise is Ryder’s first American-released record since his 1983 John Mellencamp–produced Never Kick a Sleeping Dog, he has been a busy musician over the years. He has a very devoted European following, especially in Germany, where a 1978 TV performance catapulted him to stardom. He has released over a dozen CDs in Germany and regularly puts on 2½ hour concerts. “I don’t have to do any of my American hits. They don’t care,” Ryder states. “It really makes me happy to have that alternative career.”
The Promise is just one of Ryder’s several current projects. His just published memoir, Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legendchronicles his colorful career — and how he suffered through addiction, bankruptcy and more — and survived to talk about it all. In addition to the new book and album, Ryder is working on stage musical that he describes as “intensely emotional” and like “a Russian novel.”
An energetic 66-year-old, Ryder doesn’t think “time is an issue that should be treated so seriously.” He just strives to be productive and continue to grow as an artist. “I don’t feel old,” he proclaims, “I feel great about what I am trying to accomplish.”
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