The unsung heart and soul of the Motor City rock & roll scene, Mitch Ryder was simply one of the most powerful vocalists to rise to fame in the '60s, a full-bodied rock belter who was also one of the most credible blue-eyed soul men of his generation.
He first made a nationwide impression fronting Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, whose fiery R&B attack boasted a gritty passion and incendiary energy matched by few artists on either side of the color line. After exploding onto the charts in 1966 and 1967 with singles like "Jenny Take a Ride" and "Devil with a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly," Ryder went solo on the advice of producer Bob Crewe, though albums like 1967's What Now My Love and 1969's The Detroit-Memphis Experiment lacked the fire of the Detroit Wheels hits and didn't fare as well on the charts. After scoring regional success with the hard rock band Detroit, Ryder dropped out of music until he issued 1978's How I Spent My Vacation, a powerful and personal set that showed he was still a powerful vocalist and a songwriter with a unique point of view. While 1983's Never Kick a Sleeping Dog (produced by John Mellencamp) gave him a hit with a cover of Prince's "When You Were Mine," he was widely seen as an oldies act in the United States, but he enjoyed a contemporary career in Europe, especially Germany, where he performed often and released fresh material, reaching a high-water mark with 2012's Don Was-produced The Promise.
Born William Levise, Jr. in Hamtramck, Michigan on February 26, 1945, Ryder sang with a local black quartet dubbed the Peps as a teen, but suffered so much racial harassment that he soon left the group to form his own combo, Billy Lee & the Rivieras. While opening for the Dave Clark Five during a 1965 date, the Rivieras came to the notice of producer Bob Crewe, who immediately signed the group and, according to legend, rechristened the singer Mitch Ryder after randomly selecting the name from a phone book. Backed by the peerless Detroit Wheels -- originally guitarists James McCarty and Joe Cubert, bassist Earl Elliot, and drummer Johnny "Bee" Badanjek -- Ryder reached the Top Ten in early 1966 with "Jenny Take a Ride"; the single, a frenzied combination of Little Richard's "Jenny Jenny" and Chuck Willis' "C.C. Rider," remains one of the quintessential moments in blue-eyed soul, its breathless intensity setting the tone for the remainder of the band's output.
Ryder & the Detroit Wheels returned to the charts weeks later with their reading of "Little Latin Lupe Lu," scoring their biggest hit that autumn with the Top Five smash "Devil with a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly." "Sock It to Me Baby!" followed in early 1967, but at Crewe's insistence, Ryder soon split from the rest of the band to mount a solo career. The move proved disastrous -- outside of the Top 30 entry "What Now My Love," the hits quickly and permanently dried up. In 1969, Ryder teamed with Booker T. & the MG's for an LP titled The Detroit-Memphis Experiment before returning home and reuniting with Badanjek in a new seven-piece hard rock band known simply as Detroit. The group's lone LP, a self-titled effort issued in 1971, remains a minor classic, yielding a major FM radio hit with its cover of Lou Reed's "Rock and Roll" that was praised by Reed himself. However, the years of performing were taking their toll, and as Ryder began suffering more and more from severe throat problems, he retired from music, relocating to the Denver area in 1973. In time he began writing songs with wife Kimberley, also taking up painting and working on a novel.
Ryder resurfaced in 1978 on his own Seeds and Stems label with How I Spent My Vacation, his first new LP in seven years; Naked But Not Dead appeared a year later, and he continued his prolific output in 1981 with two new efforts, Live Talkies and Got Change for a Million? In 1983 ardent fan John Cougar Mellencamp agreed to produce Ryder's major-label comeback, Never Kick a Sleeping Dog, which generated a minor hit with its cover of the Prince classic "When You Were Mine" but otherwise failed to return the singer to mainstream success, at least at home. In Europe, and particularly in Germany, he retained a large fan following, releasing In the China Shop on the German label Line in 1986. After satirizing the Iran-Contra debacle with the 1987 single "Good Golly, Ask Ollie," Ryder issued the full-length Red Blood, White Mink the following year; subsequent efforts include 1990's The Beautiful Toulang Sunset, 1992's La Gash, and 1994's Rite of Passage. He continued touring steadily in the years to come and also worked on an autobiography. Ryder's first new studio album in nearly 20 years, the Don Was-produced The Promise, appeared in 2012. In 2018, Ryder released his first holiday album, an uptempo set titled Christmas (Take a Ride). ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi