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Interview:
Mitch Ryder is still takin' a ride with new album, book, musical
 

By GARY GRAFF
for Journal Register Newspapers

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On the title track of his new album, “The Promise,” Mitch Ryder sings that “hard work and patience, that faith has made things right.”

And the veteran Detroit rocker certainly knows from hard work these days.

“The Promise,” released last year in Europe as “Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet (The Promise)” and due out on these shores on Feb. 13, is Ryder’s first U.S. release in 30 years. It comes on the heels of a new autobiography, “Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend,” and while Ryder has another European album ready to record, he’s also deeply immersed in a stage musical with a working title of “Hide Your Love Away.”

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business may be an overused moniker, but at age 66, Ryder is certainly laying his claim for consideration for that title.

“I was asking myself the other day, ‘Why did I wait things long to become so inspired?’ “ says Ryder, who resides with his fourth wife, Megan, in South Lyon. “It think it’s just the natural evolution of things. It’s a relatively prolific period for me, and it’s exciting.

“It’s hard but it’s fun, and that’s the way I believe it’s supposed to be.”

Ryder’s work ethic certainly can’t be questioned during the 48 years since his first national single, “I Need Help (Help Help)” with the Detroit Wheels. Born William Levise Jr. in Hamtramck and a performer since his teen years with bands such as the Peps and Tempest, he remains best-known -- at least at home -- for his mid-60s hits “Jenny Take a Ride!~,” “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” “Devil With a Blue Dress On”/”Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Sock It to Me-Baby!”

“Those are fun records,” Ryder says now. “That’s all they were ever meant to be. There’s nothing deep about them. They’re not Dylanesque, though he’s my No. 1 hero. They’re the kind of songs you’d hear at frat parties and (places) like that, and people still like to hear them now.”

And while those songs defined Ryder’s career to many, he’s remained an active and working artist, particularly in Germany where he’s released nearly 20 albums that have built what Ryder modestly calls a “cult” following that’s spread to France and other parts of Europe. And though he’s only surfaced occasionally in stateside record racks -- for 1971’s “Detroit with Mitch Ryder” and 1983’s John Mellencamp-produced “Never Kick a Sleeping Dog” -- he still tours with his own band and on packages such as the annual summer Hippie Fest.

He reviews his career, and life, in frank and unsparing detail in “Devils & Blue Dresses,” an often bleak portrait that recounts childhood molestations, soul-scarring battles with producers, bandmates and music executives, marital and financial woes, and the struggle to make art in a world that values commerce.

“I tried to be as honest as I could,” says Ryder, adding that “there are a lot of deletions, but they weren’t made by me. They were made by attorneys and editors. What I submitted is a much more dangerous book than what’s out there now. It was so brutally honest...When I handed my publisher the project he said, ‘OK, what’s it about?’ I said, ‘It’s about this (messed) up life that’s totally repulsive, and the main character is a (messed) up individual, but eventually he’s able to redeem himself.

“That’s the long and short of it.”

Ryder doesn’t consider “The Promise” to be a companion piece to the book, though he notes that the exercise of examining his past had “some effect” on the songs he wrote. Produced by Grammy Award winner and fellow Detroiter Don Was, who used Ryder on Was (Not Was)’s 1983 album “Born to Laugh at Tornadoes,” the 12-song set also includes remakes of a couple songs previously released in Europe as well as his performance of Jimmy Ruffin’s Motown hit “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” from Was’ Detroit All-Star Revue at the 2011 Concert of Colors in Detroit.

“(Ryder) may be the most under-appreciated guy in American popular music,” Was says. “He’s such a great soul singer, and he brought that element into rock ‘n’ roll. I just wanted to capture that energy.”

Ryder, meanwhile, is happy with the wide range of styles he was able to showcase on “The Promise.”

“If you go back and look at all my albums over the years,” he notes, “it’s really like a kid in a candy store picking out all these different flavors and styles of candy more than a dedicated R&B specialist -- which I’m very good at. But it gets broader than that, and there’s always going to be one or two (songs) on there where people say, ‘What...is that doing in there?’ That’s what makes it interesting for me.”

The musical, meanwhile, is Ryder’s paramount interest at the moment. He’s nearly finished with the story and has written “about half of the songs.” “The topic is love, which is huge,” Ryder says, promising that “this isn’t a rock musical, which I consider stupid. It’s not a Four Seasons/’Jersey Boys’ thing, a musical based around my musical accomplishments. That’s not theater. This has nothing to do in name value with Mitch Ryder.”

He “still has a long way to go” on the project, but Ryder isn’t complaining. Rather, he’s happy to have so much going on in at this late stage of a career he has no plans to abandon “as long as I’m still healthy enough to get on a stage and sing these songs.”

“In spite of the downs and the sacrifices, it’s been worth it to come far enough to write that book,” Ryder says. “Now I’m at a point where I’m kind of satisfied with where I am in terms of creating music. So now what’s out there for me? I keep looking for these challenges, and I’m grateful to find them.”

Mitch Ryder celebrates the release of his new album, “The Promise,” and the publication of “Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend” with a performance at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14, at Callahan’s Music Hall, 2105 South Blvd., Auburn Hills. Tickets are $45. Call 248-858-9508 or visit www.atcallahans.com.

Web Site: www.atcallahans.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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