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The unsung heart and soul of the Motor City rock & roll scene, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels' blue-eyed R&B attack boasted a gritty passion and incendiary energy matched by few artists on either side of the color line. Born William Levise, Jr. in Hamtramck, MI on February 26, 1945, as a teen Ryder sang with a local black quartet dubbed the Peps but suffered so much racial harassment that he soon left the group to form his own combo, Billy Lee and 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 Joseph Cubert, bassist Earl Elliot, and drummer Johnny "Bee" Badanjek — Ryder reached the Top Ten in early '66 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 and 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. and the MG's for an LP titled The Detroit/Memphis Experiment before returning home and reuniting with Badanjek in a new seven-piece lineup 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"; 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 follow and also worked on an autobiography.
Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels
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