Key figures in the Detroit rock `n’ roll scene, Mitch Ryder and his Detroit Wheels were a hardworking hit machine in the 1960s, playing hundreds of one-nighters a year while cranking out such classics as “Jenny Take a Ride,” “Sock It to Me Baby” and “Devil with a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly.” Led by Ryder on vocals, the band’s incendiary mix of garage rock and James Brown-Little Richard-flavored R&B still has a satisfying kick to it.
The life of Ryder, from his `60s heyday to the present, has been captured in a new biography by author James A. Mitchell, soon to be published by Wayne State University Press. “It Was All Right—Mitch Ryder’s Life in Music” recounts the rocker’s heyday and the struggles since then to recapture his popularity—efforts that have been clouded by bad management, band breakups and personal demons. Ryder, 63, recently spoke about his tumultuous life in music.
Many may not be aware that you are still very active making new music overseas. When did you first start becoming popular in Europe?
I developed a separate career over there starting in 1979, which wasn’t framed or based around the American top 10 hits. A huge show (of mine) was on satellite all over Europe. It was broadcast out of Germany, and that’s why the Germans have become my base. Originally, it was Hamburg; now it’s in Berlin. That opened a whole new door for me as an artist, whereas here I’m pigeonholed as an oldies act. I never had a chance to break through again here except for the attempt by Mellencamp in `83, which fell short. (John Mellencamp produced Ryder’s major label comeback album, “Never Kick a Sleeping Dog.”) And so the alternative was to create something new.
I’ve cut 12 CDs over there that are essentially unheard by Americans. They have no idea of my growth as an artist. And so for them, it’s still “Jenny Take a Ride” and “Sock It to Be Baby.” I’m constantly creating contemporary material and have been touring to support it every year since 1979. It’s good for me `cause it keeps me from going insane.
What do you want people to take out of the book?
Pay attention to that transition between the American career and the European career. That’s very important to my life. And understand that Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels were probably the second-shortest time I’d ever spent with a band in my life. All my other bands lasted longer, and the productivity equaled, if not outdistanced, everything that was done by the Wheels. Everything done by the Wheels—they got robbed; we all got robbed. How the group got broken up is very important reading.
What other projects do you have going on?
There’s my upcoming autobiography, which I hope will be out in December of this year or January or February of `09. That goes into way, way more detail about the European experience and how it made me feel. My autobiography touches on the same things chronologically and some of the same issues (as Mitchell’s book), but it’s not journalistic—it’s very subjective. Jim’s book is as objective as it can get. When you compare that sort of sanity to the insanity of my autobiography, you get a great picture of what really happened in my life.
Hopefully, I can get an American deal for my latest CD, “You Deserve My Art.” I’m in the studio and will have, before this year’s out, my first American recording in some 20 years. We’ve already got seven tracks sketched and two recorded—it’s being done at Pearl Sound (in Canton, Mich.). So that means there will be four products in the marketplace, and if it doesn’t hit, I go back to the drawing board and try again.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the music business?
If you begin by writing for your own pleasure and (when) your career is coming to an end you’re still writing for your own pleasure, then you are a success. Watch out for the gangsters; they’re everywhere—there are no morals or ethics. The industry is just as slimy as it’s always been. Embrace the technology; use it to your advantage.
Of all the people you’ve met and worked with, including John Mellencamp, Hendrix, hanging with the Beatles, what memory stays strongest with you?
That’s a tough question! There’s many nice people in my business—on the musician side. You’ve got to have some kind of a heart to play beautiful music. You’ve got to have some sensitivity to be in touch with what’s beautiful and what’s not. People that are filled with hatred don’t know the difference between beauty and ugliness. There’s some who are just bastards. I was that way. It took me a long time to accept what had happened to me. (Ryder says his mistreatment at the hands of the music industry led him to engage in destructive behavior.) When fame is taken away from you so abruptly, it’s hard to deal with. Then I had to spend the rest of my life rebuilding that career and the goodwill and getting straight and not choosing drugs and drink over making good music.