Mitch Ryder

William Levise Jr. was born February 26th, 1945, in Hamtramck, Michigan and spent his formative years frequenting the clubs on Woodward Avenue, watching many of Tamla/Motown's star attractions. He grew up in Detroit listening to Soul music and joined a group in high school called The Tempest. Levise later sang in a Black quartet called The Peps, but suffered so much harassment that he left the group. He went to Los Angeles for a time, then returned to Detroit in 1963 to form another band which he called Billy Lee And The Rivieras. Levise himself was Billy Lee and sang lead vocals 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 Billy Lee And 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 Four Seasons' producer Bob Crewe to a Detroit performance where The Rivieras opened for The Dave Clark Five. They torched the hometown audience for ninety 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, 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 And The Detroit Wheels' single, "I Need Help", failed to make an impression, their second attempt, "Jenny Take A Ride!" climbed to #10 near the end of January, 1966 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 that April 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 And Good Golly Miss Molly", exploded over the airwaves and indelibly stamped the high energy Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels sound on anyone within an earshot as they hit #4 on the U.S. charts in late November.

Early in 1967, "Sock It To Me-Baby!" became Ryder's final Billboard Top 10 single when it climbed to #6 despite being banned on several stations for being too sexually suggestive. It was followed by "Too Many Fish In The Sea & Three Little Fishes" (#24), that reverted to the medley formula. After "I'd Rather Go To Jail" failed to chart at all, The Detroit Wheels were summarily fired and Bob Crewe packed Ryder off to Las Vegas with a big band in tow. The next three releases, a song called "Joy" that peaked at #41 that August, "What Now My Love" that reached #30 in October, and "You Are My Sunshine" which stalled at #94, were credited to just Mitch Ryder. In early February, 1968, after a medley of "(You've Got) Personality / Chantilly Lace" only made to to #100 Ryder and Crewe parted company.

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. And 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 Germany based Line label. He came back with 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 to shreds, although it only reached #95 on the Hot 100. Single tracks, "Bow Wow Wow Wow", "For Was, Not Was" and a satirical take on Oliver North called "Good Golly Ask Ollie", were his only other domestic releases. Ryder enjoyed another surge in European popularity and released two more LPs, "In The China Shop" in 1984 and "Red Blood, White Mink" in 1995. There was 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 Ryder's story is that mismanagement and show biz machinations sidetracked a great band, and the financial inequity aside, quite possibly prevented him 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 soulful, 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. Ryder's website still showed some personal appearances booked for 72-year-old singer in 2017.