Levise himself was Billy Lee and sang lead vocals and was backed by bass player Earl Elliott, lead guitarist Jim McCarty (later of Buddy Miles Express and Cactus) and drummer John Badanjek. The group later brought in Joe Cubert, who had been with the Tempest, to play rhythm guitar.
By mid-summer of 1964, the group had attracted a fanatical local following that caught the ear of Motor City DJ Bob Prince. Prince began booking Lee & The Rivieras as an opening act at a club north of Detroit, but their live performances were so potent that the unrecorded group was soon headlining over major Motown artists. Prince then arranged for The Rivieras to record a tape in Badanjek's basement, and that demo brought 4 Seasons producer Bob Crewe to a Detroit performance where The Rivieras opened for The Dave Clark Five. They torched the hometown audience for 90 minutes, Crewe was hooked, and in February, 1965, the five Detroit teenagers relocated to New York City and bided their time for a few months, playing Greenwich Village clubs for survival money.
The name was the first to go (a conflict with The Rivieras who recorded "California Sun"), hence the legendary story of Lee/Levise flipping through the Manhattan phone directory and coming across the name Mitch Ryder, and took the name that he has used ever since. The Rivieras became The Detroit Wheels and album cover photos of the band on top of oil cans or surrounded by discarded tires punched the automotive image home.
What followed was a wild two-year ride that brought them fame, but no fortune and tore the group apart in the process. The first Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels single, "I Need Help", failed to make an impression, but in late 1965, their second attempt, "Jenny Take A Ride!" climbed to #10 as The Wheels welded Chuck Willis' "C.C. Rider" to Little Richard's "Jenny, Jenny".
"Little Latin Lupe Lu" cemented their commercial appeal when it reached #17 and set the general outline of the band's most popular sound - an R&B standard or two, revved up, Wheels-style, with Mitch's peerless soul shouting ripping away over the top. That approach bordered on becoming a formula, particularly after "Break Out", the first attempt at a bigger, brassier sound, only made it to #62 and the ballad "Takin' All I Can Get" barely cracked the Top 100. Late in 1966, the medley, "Devil With A Blue Dress On" & "Good Golly Miss Molly", exploded over the airwaves and indelibly stamped the high energy Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels sound on anyone within an earshot as they hit #4 on the U.S. charts.
Early in 1967, "Sock It To Me-Baby!" became Ryder's final Top 10 single, despite being banned on several stations for being too sexually suggestive. It was followed by "Too Many Fish In The Sea" & "Three Little Fishes", that reverted to the medley formula, but it was the final chart entry (at #24) for Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels.
Encouraged by Bob Crewe's vision of Mitch Ryder as a solo artist, the Detroit Wheels were summarily fired in 1967, and after releasing, "Joy" with the hard-riffing "I'd Rather Go To Jail", Crewe packed Ryder off to Las Vegas with a big band in tow.
Crewe had big plans for Mitch Ryder, but the "What Now My Love" album, released in mid-1967, may be the worst piece of overblown dreck ever associated with a major artist. Removed from the power-dive of The Detroit Wheels, swamped by strings and pompous pretence, the fact that Ryder somehow got the title track up to #30, might rank as the most amazing feat of his singing career. It was the final straw, and Ryder bailed out of his contract with Crewe, who promptly milked the last bit of mileage he could by slapping horn tracks over the R&B tunes The Wheels had covered and putting out the "Mitch Ryder Sings The Hits" album.
Instead of immediately returning to Detroit, Ryder took a down-home detour to Memphis to record The Detroit-Memphis Experiment album with Stax luminaries Booker T. & The MGs and The Memphis Horns. Liner notes containing phrases like "After being raped by the music machine that represents that heaven-on-earth" and "Mitch Ryder is the sole creation of William Levise, Jr.", left little doubt about his feelings over the Crewe experience.
It was the only time Ryder recorded with a bona-fide soul band, but fine music didn't spell commercial success, and Ryder returned home to a reunion with The Wheels drummer John Badanjek in the short-lived supergroup called simply, "Detroit", which lasted just long enough to record one heavy-duty rock 'n' roll album in 1971.
An embittered Ryder left the active performing scene, heading to Denver and working a day job for five years while honing his songwriting skills with his wife Kimberley, after hours. When he returned to Detroit, he formed a new band and released the autobiographical "How I Spent My Vacation" and then "Naked, But Not Dead" on his own Seeds and Stems label. That helped trigger a resurgence of European interest in Ryder and he released several additional albums- "Live Talkies", "Got Change For A Million", and "Smart Ass", in the early '80s on the German 'Line' label.
He came back to a major American label for the John Cougar Mellencamp produced "Never Kick A Sleeping Dog" in 1983, highlighted by a gritty version of Prince's "When You Were Mine" that cut the original and all others to shreds. Single tracks, "Bow Wow Wow Wow", "For Was, Not Was" and a satirical take on Oliver North called "Good Golly Ask Ollie" - are his only other domestic releases.
Mitch Ryder enjoyed another surge in European popularity and released two more LPs for Line Records, "Red Blood, White Mink" and "In The China Shop". There's certainly nothing nostalgic about the charged music here, and no one, ever kicked out the rockin' R&B jams better than Mitch Ryder.
The tragedy of Mitch's story is that mis-management, and show biz machinations sidetracked a great band, and the financial inequity aside, quite possibly prevented Mitch Ryder from tapping his full potential as a singer. But all these problems can't erase the indelible rush of The Detroit Wheels shifting into over-drive with that immitigable, fiery voice flying over the top.
In late 2011, Mitch published his autobiography entitled Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend, which he wrote entirely on his own. The 256-page book offered a revealing look at his personal life and career, along with portraits of some of those he encountered along the way. Saying that he wanted to be as honest as he could about the events in his life, Mitch revealed that there were a lot of deletions from the original manuscript that were made by attorneys and editors.
January 2012 brought great news for Mitch Ryder fans when he issued "The Promise", his first new album since 1983, released on his own Michigan Broadcasting Corporation label.