The Resurrection of Mitch Ryder

by Janet Goodman

On the cusp of his 67th birthday, legendary rock ‘n’ soul artist Mitch Ryder shows no signs of slowing down now. In December, he released his first book – the warts-and-all autobiography, “Devils & Blue Dresses,” and the explosive singer is making the rounds promoting it. After an absence of nearly thirty years from the U.S. market, he’s coming out with “The Promise” – an album of new songs that was previously released overseas. Later this month, he’s off to Europe for a 25-city, two-month tour of Germany and Switzerland, and upon returning to his home just outside the Motor City, he hopes to finish his latest ambitious project: a stage musical. The memoir has been well received by the press, and his publisher’s commission of a novel has been added to the schedule.

For decades, Ryder has put out music product across the pond and regularly tours there, but not since his 1983 John Mellencamp-produced “Never Kick A Sleeping Dog” have Americans had the chance to his hear his new recordings. The 60s hits with Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels – “Sock It To Me Baby,” “Jenny Take A Ride” and “Devil With A Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly” have forever ensured his inclusion on the all-time great rock singers lists, but his name has been lost on a new generation. This moment of flurried activity here is a chance for re-birth of a legendary career. As it turns out, his private life has experienced a coming around, as well.

In an interview with MNN earlier this month, Ryder appeared to be pleasantly one-half character of sorts and one-half old soul. He gave a generous amount of his prized time, and this was perhaps my first experience being so warmly thanked for the occasion. Conversation continued well after officially wrapping things up, where he openly spoke about his personal life: how his parents’ pride in their eldest son’s early career led to their seven other children getting less than “a fair shake;” of regrets; of repairing relationships with his children; and finally of his wife, about whom he gushed. This is when I realized this is more than a re-birth of just a music career.

Why did you stop releasing albums in the U.S. after 1983?

It was influenced by labels, I suppose; that, and I had a very prolific outlet for my music overseas, so I didn’t feel it necessary to pursue, as hard as it is, a recording contract in America, when I already had an outlet for my music over in Europe. A good thing about Europe was that I had complete artistic control, and didn’t have to answer to anybody about what I created.

What encouraged the release of “The Promise” here?

Probably just the fact that nobody really knew who I was here anymore, and to be honest with you – people knew who I was if they’re in the music business, and certainly my fans recall me with a great love – but their only reference point was the hits from the 1960s or possibly the 1980s album you’re talking about [the 1983 “Never Kick A Sleeping Dog,] and so I had to give them another glimpse of what’s going on currently just to bring myself back into the general consciousness; that was what the point was. Eventually, what I aim to do is to compile all the beautiful stuff I’ve done overseas and get it into general release in the U.S., so my fans can follow the story through the decades because I think many of them feel that I just laid down and died, and that’s not the case at all. It’s been a very prolific and creative adventure for me, and I want to continue to do that. That’s why we have this CD coming out now, as well as my autobiography which I wrote myself.

Is this a full-circle moment for you?

Yeah, it is…in a sense it is, because I did start out as a single artist; I didn’t start my career with a group. My first recording was on a label called Carrie here in Detroit. It was actually a gospel label. I recorded and released my first single when I was 17. So yeah – it’s full circle. It’s a good feeling. It’s rewarding; add to the fact that I was able to land one of the top producers in the country – that didn’t hurt me at all.

Yes, what was it like to work with legendary producer Don Was?

Creatively, it was magical. Not only did he see to it that we were in a great studio [Henson Studios in L.A., originally Charlie Chaplin’s studios, then A & M Records], but Don really cared enough to get me his best engineer, the best studio, the best musicians, and we brought really strong material to the album, so I think everyone’s very satisfied with it.

Your last American project was produced by John Mellencamp, and that was a comeback album, too.

Yeah, it was. It was the first time I’d been back on the charts since, I think, 1970. That was in 1983. That was quite an accomplishment.

What stands out in your memories of that experience working with Mellencamp?

Two things: We created a beautiful product, but we absolutely can’t get along together (laugh). We’re just too much alike. It was difficult, and part of the difficulty was me allowing somebody else to take the reins, where up until that point, I had been in control of that. And I think on John’s part it was – that I know of, other than himself – it was his first outside production with another artist, and so he was kind of stumbling and feeling his way through, too. But the project that came out of it was, I think, incredible. And when people go back and listen to it…I think it sold something like sixty to eighty thousand units, which wasn’t bad. If I was in their group, they’d probably pick it up, but we were so over-budget on it that Polygram decided not to pursue a second album.

I looked on amazon.com and that record is selling for a lot of money right now; it’s hard to come by.

Yeah, they won’t print them. I don’t know what their problem is, and they’re selling for that kind of money, you’d think they’d want to get them back in the marketplace.

So was that the first and last time you worked with Mellencamp?

Yeah. I don’t see us working together soon, unless we both have a change of heart.

You have a song on the album about growing older called “One Hair.” How has performing changed as you’ve grown older?

Not much. Overseas, I do 2-1/2 hour concerts with no intermission. Someday that may just disappear, but until it does, I’m just gonna keep going. I don’t see any reason not to.

In that song, you sing, “I live one hair from disaster.” Do you still think that today?

Oh, yeah, from an artistic point of view. If you create something that betrays your core beliefs as an artist, it could be over in a split second. So the game is all about just remaining true to your art form – and my art form is going through some really weird changes right now. Like I said, we have the CD, but we also have the book, which I’m told all reviews have been fantastic for the book. In fact, my publisher called yesterday and he wants me to write a novel now, so now I’ve got that on the plate. I’ve got a CD that I’ve got to finish over in Europe on this trip, and then I’ve got this musical that I’m half-way through, and I’m kind of disturbed a little bit because of the interruption.

I did the book and I did the album over a year ago, but now I’m having to promote it. Now here comes the European tour right in the middle, and it takes the musical and makes me put it on the shelf. I’m really frustrated because I was making great progress, so when I return from the tour, I’m just gonna have to buckle down and get back down to the musical. My original date for presentation was gonna be the fall of this year, but now, realistically, I don’t see it being accomplished until the winter, maybe 2013.

Talk about the stage musical you’re working on, “Hide Your Love Away.”

I’ve been working with the title, “Hide Your Love Away,” [borrowed] from the old Beatles song, but without the “Hey, you’ve got to.” It’s an original story that has nothing to do with Mitch Ryder. That’s what I believe is one of the problems in theatre today. Theatre is becoming pretty much just a jukebox where you go to hear one of your big groups sing their biggest hits, with some flimsy storyline built around it by some out-of-work playwright. So I decided to do it in traditional fashion: Create a wonderful story first, and then compliment the characters and the individual-ness of the characters with great songs.

Are you still writing the story?

The story is just about complete. I won’t get to the little book for a while yet. I’ve got to finish the story. What I’m doing is creating a little book – a novel actually – like a novelette. I’ll have to do that first in order to get my bearings. It’s where to go when I run into a playwright; I’ve got to be able to give him something to work with.

Have you written any songs for it yet?

[I’ve got] about six of them, and those are gonna need orchestration. I’ll have to pull somebody in for that and arrangements. I have got melodies, and chords, and keys and words; I just don’t have all the embellishments that I’m gonna want for the theatre presentation.

Are any of the tracks on “The Promise” geared for the musical?

No. All the songs are original for the musical.

Which is a more satisfying creative outlet for you: performing or writing songs?

They’re all fantastic, because they’re all fun. I don’t really work for a living; I have fun for a living. I don’t know how to make people understand it, except to say this: Let’s say I delivered milk in a truck for a living, but I really loved it and I enjoyed it. Well, what more can you ask of a job than to do something you really love and have fun doing it? So that’s the only way to explain it. There’s no sleep a lot of times. It’s hard. You put in 18-hour days. You call your own time slots, but you find that you exhaust yourself, because the creative effort is a little harder than people can imagine.

Do you usually write on guitar or piano?

I prefer guitar. I’ve got a nice little J-45 that I use, and I basically just use it for my chord structure. I’ve got a very simple tape recording method that – in fact, every song that I took to the studio with Don, all the information was put onto a little voice-activated recorder. For example, I keep it by my bed, and if for some reason a very great melody would come to my head, I just reach in the dark and turn on the recorder, and the next day there it is and I can work with it. It’s cool.

So I took the little recorder in the studio, and my wife was amazed. She says he takes this little recorder in there and he’s already got the bass part that he’s hummed into the machine, and he shows the bass player the part. He’s got the guitar chords on the machine; he shows them to the guitar player. He’s got the melody on the machine; he puts the words on the machine; they’re all scattered in segments and in bits and pieces, but I know the formula. I just use that to guide me and the musicians through the songs.

Do you write lyrics afterwards?

That happens both ways, depending how compelling the lyrics are and if it’s a really strong emotion or thought that I’m dealing with, I’ll try to do that and then I have to do what I call “The Elton John Trick,” which is create the music around the lyric, which he’s very good at. For years, Bernie Taupin wrote and he (John) just created the melody and chords around Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. But many times, I’ll find myself just establishing a rhythm or a set of chords that I like very much, and then I’ll start humming a melody that seems to fit; then the task becomes finding meaningful lyrics to fit into that [which] I already created.

You’ve said that Dylan is your “No. 1 hero.” Why do you admire his songwriting?

Because he’s so great. He obviously deserves The Medal of Freedom that he got from the President. (Dylan was recently given a different White House honor, The National Medal of Arts; not the Medal of Freedom.) I love his ambiguity in his writing. One word from him, or certain words from him can have a thousand different meanings to a thousand different people, and that implies universality. That’s a great big gift if you’re a writer, because you can create so many different consciousness levels and interpretations, and that’s what we need to strive for – that kind of brilliance; I’m sure it came to him naturally, too.

Your autobiography was released in December…

It’s getting great reviews, I can tell you (laugh). It’s funny – I didn’t believe it. I didn’t think for a first time author I would get that kind of reaction. It’s incredible.

I read that people were contacting you about how the quality of your writing was really top notch, besides the fact that your life is very fascinating. That seemed to surprise you.

It did, it did. I knew I had some ability in terms of writing lyrics. That’s what led me to believe I could write a musical, because musicals and stage plays are about minimum words with maximum impact. And a lot of what happens in theatre – I was taught only through study while preparing to do the musical that the audience really depends on the body language and the vibe or insinuations that are coming from the movement of the character just as much as they do from the actual words that the actor learns, and so that’s minimizing and maximizing at the same time; however, when you’re gonna write a book, you need (laugh) a lot of words, and to have it make sense and to put it together in a sense that people can understand and find – I don’t know why they came up with this term, but in the literary world, they call it “your voice;” find that and keep that as a constant, I guess, is quite a trick for some people.

But it all seems to come quite easy for me, and I’m very pleased with the outcome. I was afraid that it was going to be totally redundant, and to have it be embraced the way it has…When my publisher called yesterday and told me he wanted me to do a novel, I was going out of my mind (laughs). First of all, I don’t know where I’m going to find the time, number one. And number two: That’s quite a thrill to be offered the chance to take a stab at something. I just wasn’t prepared for the acceptance.

Well, that’s just another challenge for you. With these new art forms that you’re exploring – writing for the theatre and writing a book – what’s the process like for you? How long did you work on the book?

It took years to write it. I have two complete books finished that I used as source material for the finished project. I handed in the project over a year ago. Those two completed books were the same story – my life story – but there was something about them that just didn’t feel right to me. So I pondered it for a long time and it was painful ‘cause I thought I was in fear of being defeated. Taking up the challenge, then, I just said screw it: defeat isn’t a shame if you’re trying something you never tried before. You at least have to try so you’ll know – for the rest of your life you’ll know if you could do it or not. And if you can’t, you won’t ever touch it again, but if you can, it’ll be something great you can play with in the future…like a toy…I think like a little boy sometimes (laughs): “I got a new toy now I can play with.”

So how disciplined were you writing it?

It was difficult. I was going on the road, so I’d take the recorder…the one-nighter tours in Europe – those are very difficult to do anything but concentrate on doing big shows, plus we had two, four-pound Yorkies that are probably more needy than a human being (laughs). They’re babies, and they’re always beside me [when I’m] typing. They’d give me a half hour here, forty-five minutes there, then they’d come and they’d want attention. It was just like really screwed up (laugh). My best working hours were after everybody went to bed, and then I could stay up all night in quiet and write.

Less distractions…

Oh, yeah. And the quiet is so…when I write I love isolation. Nothing serves me better than total isolation.

So you wrote most of it at home, as opposed to on the road?

Absolutely; in fact, all of it [was written] in my home, other than the notes that I would take on the road. Instead of creating paragraphs and stories, I would just make myself notes – “Remember to talk about this,” “How are you going to explain this?” – and I would actually ask the questions on the tape recorder, and just use that instead of a study file.

Recently, there are other musicians who have written memoirs, too. Keith Richards…

Yeah, but they used ghost writers…so they don’t count.

So this was a solo effort on your part.

Yeah, absolutely. That’s why it’s so rewarding.

Now that you’ve aired out your demons for all the world to see in your book, how do you feel?

I don’t really know…and I don’t really care, ‘cause I’m making a musical now. You know, that’s my past; it’s done. Whether it sells or doesn’t sell, whether it’s despised or liked – that’s all behind me. I don’t have time; I’m not a spring chicken and I need all my creative energy to be focused on my next project.

Do you feel like it’s a load off your shoulders; did you feel compelled that you had something important to say, and now you’re relieved that you said it?

Well, no, I didn’t jump out on a limb…Miley Cyrus: I read somewhere that she was 16 and was putting out her autobiography. How can you write an autobiography at 16? (laughs)…I guess she did.

Well, I guess it’s because people would buy it, right?

I don’t know. I didn’t write mine to sell; I wrote mine to tell.

Oh, I like that!

(Pause) Mohammad Ali (laughs) little rhymes…

How long have you been clean and sober?

A long time. I stopped counting the days. First of all, my wife has 28 years. And I believe I’m probably over 10 at this point, but I’ve got two relapses. What happens is when I get clean…I’ve still got a perfect liver. I’ve still got perfect kidneys. My heart’s in great shape. In spite of the fact I smoke, my doctor tells me that my lungs are excellent, with a good capacity for air. He attributes a lot of that to the way I sing.

He said, “You’ve expelled so many toxins as you sing, they’re coming out of your mouth (laugh)…so that’s kind of cool. I had a little thing where they found blood in my urine. They were frightened because that’s one of the signs – smokers usually get cancer first in their bladders. So we were a little worried. They took a biopsy and it turned out it’s not cancer, so we’re all happy about life. I’ve got a lot of energy and just wanna keep moving as long as I can.

How has sobriety affected your songwriting?

I can’t really say it’s affected it in any other way except in terms of a time table. I’m more compelled to start something and finish it now than I used to be. When I used to do drugs and drink, it was like, “Oh, I’m tired of this. I’m gonna take a nap.” Now, albeit there may be distractions, they’re temporary, and you can still keep focused. The reason I had to create two books to make this third one – my first one, actually – was because there was that much going on. Talk about opening up your life! Wow, this book is pretty open.

I attribute that to my mother. She taught me a lot of good things. She wasn’t a very educated woman. She quit school in 6th grade, and she had to pick cotton down in Tennessee to help the family survive, but she was smart with common sense. And she told me a couple of things that have served me really well. When I told her I was gonna be a singer, she said, “Well then, you choose yourself a name and you stay that person. Don’t you become a part of a group because those people come and go, but if you become a star with a name, you’ll always be that person. You can always claim that and have that.” (Ryder’s real name is William Levise. One of his first bands was dubbed Billy Lee & The Rivieras; his biggest success was as Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels.)

Another thing she told me was always tell the truth, which when I was drinking and using, that was the furthest thing from my mind – telling the truth. But when I wrote this book, I remembered what she said and I told the truth the best I could. So there you have it.

Did sobriety make it possible for you to write your memoir?

Mmm, no. No it just made it more efficient.

Is it fair to say there’s less chaos in your life right now?

Absolutely! I have a very, very, surprisingly strong relationship with my wife. My business affairs are in order. My priorities are correct. Yeah, life is good. We’re not rich by any means; in fact, sometimes we have to wonder where the money for the electric bill is gonna come from, but that’s not a bother. We’re just living life what I consider the right way. Things have a way of working out.

Are you welcoming that peace into your life?

Yeah, it’s already here. We’ve built a spare bedroom for it!

Can you look back on it all without bitterness, like you do in your song, “Life is crazy beautiful, it’s a ride worth taking,” especially having written the book and it’s fresh in your mind?

Yeah I can. I absolutely can. There were enough times and enough situations where whatever anger, evil and hatred that I had inside me, I was able to put that out there and a lot of people were hurt besides myself. And I’m sorry for that. But life’s a strange journey. I do apologize in the book actually, because that’s a part of the [AA] program – you have to make amends where you can unless it means hurting somebody else. I did the best I could.

I reviewed “The Promise” http://www.musicnewsnashville.com/mitch-ryder-%E2%80%93-the-promise at the beginning of the month, and I described you and your vocal style as “joyous,” “a male Mavis Staples.” Is that joy that I hear a reflection of where you are now in life?

I think so. I remember very well the quote – your quote and your comparison. I had the opportunity to meet her when I was making “The Detroit/Memphis Experiment” with Booker T and the MGs down in Memphis in 1969. I had the occasion to meet and say hello to her, and have seen many of her performances, so I understand the joy you’re talking about.

I hope to see you more here in The States.

Yeah, me, too. We really are working hard on getting that together. Finding success in America today is very difficult, but resurrecting somebody is almost impossible, and that’s what we’re looking at here is the resurrection of Mitch Ryder. And boy, if you can resurrect him, you can resurrect anybody. We got our work cut out for us.

After the interview, Ryder talked about his family relationships and his struggles to make amends with his siblings, with his third wife, and with his children, who became victims of divorce. It gives us a glimpse into the re-birth of a fallen man.

Fame didn’t do me any favors in that regard. Fame cost me my first marriage. I state in my book that’s my biggest regret. I divorced my children’s mother and that has caused them so much pain and agony, even into their adult years…we can’t change anything.

My current marriage…she’s a remarkable woman. When I first met her, she didn’t even
know who I was. I didn’t do the usual thing. I courted her a year before thoughts of going to bed together. [Instead] we communicated. We went on dates. We went to restaurants. We’d sit and talk. We’d read together, talk on the phone, write letters to each other. It was a very good way to start. We were both sober. It was beautiful…and then I betrayed her and she divorced me. Three years passed and we got re-married, and we’re very happy. I made a mistake and she found it in her heart to let me back into her life. But when you’re betrayed by somebody you trust – that’s something you can’t really forgive or ever forget. It’s a lot of hard work to overcome that by making the bonds stronger and [being] more trustworthy. You can never stop working on that. I’ll never betray her again.

Visit the artist’s website at www.mitchryder.net

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