DETROIT — Mitch Ryder knows all about putting his heart on his sleeve: With a career in the soul-singing business for more than half a century, it’s practically his job description.
But perhaps nowhere has the Detroit-bred musician bared more than in his raw new autobiography, “Devils & Blue Dresses” (Cool Titles, $26.95). It’s an exhaustive — and sometimes emotionally exhausting — account of his tumultuous life and career, a trip that began with ‘60s hits such as “Jenny Take a Ride!” and “Devil with a Blue Dress On & Good Golly Miss Molly,” soul-rock hybrids that helped establish an enduring Detroit music template.
The book launches what could be a relatively high-profile year for the 66-year-old singer, whose colorful Don Was-produced album, “The Promise,” is due Feb. 14. It’s his first official American record since 1983’s “Never Kick a Sleeping Dog” (produced by John Mellencamp) and it arrives two years after its release in Europe, where Ryder has sustained an active, thriving career beyond the oldies circuit.
Through the years, “the people around here have seen these different comeback attempts,” Ryder says. “What I’ve been lacking, and what I’m starting to receive now again, is national attention. I don’t know where that’s going to take us, but I know I’ve worked hard to make it happen.”
For Ryder, the book was a tough but cathartic journey that found him revisiting his early whirl of fame, the start of a personal roller coaster that included showbiz foul play, busted marriages, periods of drug abuse and squalor, betrayals both dished out and received. Salted with dark humor, peppered with political and cultural asides, the book includes glimpses at local rock personalities — from Bob Seger to Creem magazine staffers — and Ryder’s celebrity anecdotes, including partying with the Beatles and watching Bob Dylan record “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Ryder says the autobiography’s personal nature distinguishes it from James Mitchell’s 2008 Ryder biography, “It Was All Right,” which focused on his road stories and music.
In characteristic Ryder style — a kind of crusty mischievousness — he chuckles at the prospect of ruffling feathers with his writing.
“When I started writing it, I said to myself, ‘You know, you’re in Detroit. A lot of this action happened in Detroit. You’re going to have fistfights, drive-by shootings, court proceedings from this.’ But I just told the truth the best I could. It was a cleansing experience for me.”
Narrating his story — the troubles and redemptions — he doesn’t spare himself.
“I have so many friends here. But I have many, many enemies here too,” he says. “(Stuff) happens, especially when you’re strutting around thinking you’re somebody, then doing your best to commit suicide in front of everybody in your hometown. My whole life is open for inspection by everyone in this area.”
The book, which includes images of old record contracts and memos, isn’t short on score-settling: Ryder reserves ample venom for his early managers and lawyers, who he says swiped his royalties while spurring his lifetime distrust of “the slime-laced … scam-artist music establishment.”
The book lost more than 20 pages after it was previewed by a legal expert, and it was insured in case of lawsuits.
Ryder’s early financial troubles long ago left him accustomed to a seat-of-the-pants lifestyle. At home these days in South Lyon, Mich., where he lives with his wife and their two puppies, Ryder says he still frets about the monthly utility bill. He keeps his guard up when answering calls from unfamiliar numbers, wary it might be “the next process server.”
That’s despite what has been a healthy, stable career overseas, where he’s confident that “one in 100 Germans could tell you who Mitch Ryder is — enough to let me tour Europe on a yearly basis.”
His stateside glory days behind him, Ryder began carving out his European niche in the late ‘70s. The records that followed — nearly all of them European exclusives — were sometimes a far cry from the sound of his early days.
“The Promise,” recorded at L.A.’s Henson Recording Studios, was the brainchild of old Detroit pal Don Was, whose annual Concert of Colors revue has featured Ryder three times. The album — a funky R&B brew with a love-song grace note — is being issued on Ryder’s own label, its U.S. release timed to complement the new book.
“I think my performances with him showed him something,” says Ryder. “I was one of his early heroes, according to him, and he wanted, in his own words, to ‘give me a fair chance. ‘ He said, ‘You need to have the same (comeback) opportunity that Solomon Burke got.’
“What he meant by that was a good studio, good musicians, good engineer, good material. And that was cool. It was magical, that whole experience.”
And he’s got a cautious optimism as he looks ahead to a 2012 that just might bring a Mitch Ryder resurgence.
“It’s too early to tell yet,” he says. “What I do know for sure is that the reviews I’ve gotten, with both the book and the CD, have all been very positive. So that tells me I’ve done my job.”
// Notes from the Road
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