In recent years, the word “entertainer” has transformed into a pejorative. The term now seems to carry with it an inbuilt assumption of mediocrity, simply because the performer didn’t write their own material. It does Mitch Ryder no disservice to call him a high-class, energetic entertainer. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t write his biggest hit. Like so many talented entertainers before him, he made the song his own. RPM’s newest compilation, Sockin’ It To You: The Complete Dynovoice/New Voice Recordings compiles all of Ryder’s work with his band The Detroit Wheels, as well as his first solo foray. Furthermore, it serves as an example of the heavy-handedness that some record labels exuded over their artists.
Mitch Ryder began his career in the early 1960s, performing on the club circuit in and around the Detroit area. He released one or two singles on tiny local labels under the name Bill Lee (a diminutive of his given name, William Levise), performing with the backing band, The Rivieras. Like many regional acts, they got their big break by opening for larger acts, and through doing so they met with hip producer of the era, Bob Crewe, who quickly took them on and brought them to New York to record. The first thing the band did was change their name to the more commercially seductive Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels. Ryder’s instinct was to record the material from their live show.
Much like the early releases from The Beatles, this move proved correct. Their debut album, Take A Ride, appeared in 1966. It’s an exciting, action-packed collection of contemporary hits from Motown (“Come See About Me,” “Bring It On Home To Me”) and James Brown (with no fewer than three numbers, “Please Please Please,” “I Feel Good” “I’ll Go Crazy). Even though these songs were already hits elsewhere, Ryder and band brought a potent rock and roll punch to these soulful numbers. The material might have been familiar, but overall, the formula worked: their third single, “Jenny Take A Ride,” was an impressive top-ten hit. Furthermore, it earned them the rare distinction of being the first rock band to top the R&B charts.
Naturally, the breakout success of “Jenny Take A Ride” resulted in a quickly released follow-up, Breakout…!!! The album was a modest success, thanks to the hit single “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” a fun dance numbeer.. Once again, the band performed contemporary songs such as “In The Midnight Hour” and a fine reading of Burt Bacharach’s “Any Day Now.” Crewe himself brought some of his own material, which worked equally well; “I Had It Made” and “You Get Your Kicks” feel like hits waiting in the wings. After the album’s release, the non-album single “Devil With A Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly” wound up becoming the band’s most successful single, prompting a rerelease of the album which brought it back to the charts.
One would think this success would only help the band, but unfortunately that was not the case. The follow-up, 1967’s Sock It To Me!, proved to be a transitional release. The title track performed well as a single, but the material was changing. Largely written by Crewe, and showing a hint of the coming psychedelic times, it’s something of a mixed bag. Ryder’s vocals are superb, and the fuzzy reverbed
guitar of “Takin’ All I Can Get” and “I’d Rather Go To Jail” are catchy as hell. But the formula starts to sound monotonous, and one wishes they’d offer more variety. The mellow “I Never Had It Better” offers a change of pace one wishes they’d pursued further.
Unhappy with the relatively lesser success of the new material, Crewe felt it was time for Ryder to change directions. So he fired the Detroit Wheels and decided to relaunch Ryder as a solo act. Issued in 1967, What Now My Love is a somewhat bizarre and confusing record. Side one contains five numbers that are markedly different from his previous work. Gone is the energetic soul-rock, replaced with lushly arranged and impeccably performed pop ballads. Ryder tackles them with aplomb, and his takes on “Let It Be Me” and “What Now My Love” are superb. His version of Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away” offers up one of the most powerful performances of the soon-to-be standard.
Yet side two of What Now My Love only confuses, as it returns Ryder to the red-hot style of The Detroit Wheels, yet without his trusty band. Unfortunately, these performances are perfunctory at best. The material’s good, but the lackluster performances offer the odd experience of Mitch Ryder trying to sound like Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels! It’s as if Crewe was hedging his bets, trying to change Ryder while playing it safe. It doesn’t work, but it’s not Ryder’s fault.
The final number on the album, “That’s It, I Quit, I’m Moving On,” proved quite prophetic. Ryder and Crewe would split after a few more middling single releases. A red-hot medley of “Personality” and “Chantilly Lace” became his last major hit. Not that Crewe wouldn’t continue to cash in on his successful charge; included in this set is the bizarre Mitch Ryder Sings The Hits, which is neither a greatest hits or a new solo album. Crewe removed the harder edges to give them a more lush sound, complete with almost incongruous string arrangements. And let’s not even talk about the insane frequency Crewe repackaged the material; looking at their Discogs page, it’s almost embarrassing and most certainly shameful, this exploitation of such a small body of work.
Though Ryder would never attain the commercial or chart success of his earliest work, he’s still an active musician. In the early 1970s he’d have a one-off reunion with his former bandmates in the early 1970s as Detroit. He’d spend the rest of his career as a solo act, reuniting with The Detroit Wheels for the occasional show. Sockin’ It To You contains some absolutely fantastic music; even though The Detroit Wheels may have been a fleeting thing, the music they made still burns brightly.
Purchase Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels: Sockin’ It To You: RPM Records