“The very first time I heard myself described that way, I was pissed off,” complains veteran singer Mitch Ryder, in response to being labeled “Blue-Eyed Soul.” “First off, my eyes are brown, and I didn’t originally know it referred to white singers that some critics felt were trying to sound “black.” Hey, I was just inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. So what can I tell you?”

Born William S. Levise Jr. in the small town of Hamtramck, Michigan, on February 26, 1945, his name was changed 20 years later by veteran music producer Bob Crewe (of Four Seasons fame) who spotted the young singer’s group, Billy Lee and the Rivieras, stealing the show from headliners The Dave Clark Five.  He signed them to his new DynoVoice label.

After changing the band’s name to Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, Crewe attempted to capture the onstage excitement to vinyl, by pairing a medley of the old blues standard “C.C. Rider” with Little Richard’s “Jenny, Jenny,” which hit the charts as “Jenny Take A Ride.” Other hits followed, including their most successful, a medley of “Devil With A Blue Dress On” and another old Little Richard number, “Good Golly This Molly.”

Ryder has since recorded 27 albums, the latest of which is The Promise.  He’s an acknowledged influence to such esteemed performers as Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and Bob Seger, and in 2011, he penned a “warts and all” autobiography, Devils and Blue Dresses: My Wild Life As A Rock and Roll Legend.

On Thursday, Ryder joins Vanilla Fudge, Rick Derringer and Badfinger’s Joey Molland at New Brunswick’s State Theatre, for a celebration that’s being dubbed Hippiefest. Says Ryder, “I’m really looking forward to the show. The format really reminds me of the Motown reviews I used to witness as a kid.”

Little Richard obviously had to be one of your earliest inspirations.

Yes.  He was great for information and also making me aware of the real roots of Rock and Roll, on a couple of different levels … Just the urgency in his singing, the total commitment and not caring about whether the note was right or wrong. If it existed, it was right. It was that attitude that I was able to discern at a very young age, between safeness for mommy and daddy and something that mommy and daddy absolutely hated. If you’re a young kid, you’re obviously going to gravitate to that. It’s a proven fact that all young rebels are going to go against the beat.

How did Crewe happen to suggest putting together a medley of “C.C. Rider” and “Jenny Take A Ride”?

Well, choosing those two particular tunes was his idea, but the concept of merging was something we took to New York with us from Michigan. We felt that once we had our adrenaline level up to a certain point, we just wanted to keep plowing into song after song, instead of stopping and getting that, “We gotta do it again,” feeling. We did shows where we did five, six, seven songs in a row. I guess they would call it a medley, but we were actually doing entire songs. It was just figuring a way to connect them.

Elvis, of course, opened virtually every one of his ’70s concerts with “C.C. Rider.” Did you ever hear that he got the idea from your version?

I don’t know, but I do have a bar napkin from a Vegas show I did, that said he really liked my version of the song.

What’s the story behind your doing “Devil With A Blue Dress On?” Were you familiar with Shorty Long’s original version?

Absolutely.  Me and a lot of the other kids in the Detroit area got to hear everything that Motown recorded … the hits, and the flops. (Label owner) Berry Gordy used us as a test market before he would send anything out. So if something got a good response, he’d send it out regionally, and if it clicked, he’d let it go national. So we’d hear the ones that became hits four weeks before the rest of the country.

But Shorty’s record wasn’t a hit.

No, it was a real dog for him, but it felt good to us. So after we had our first hit and went back to New York for another session, Crewe said, “Do you guys know any songs that we could match up with another one?” So we played our version of “Devil With A Blue Dress On.”

You and The Detroit Wheels shared bills with some really iconic bands. What recollections do you have of those great concerts put on at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre by Murry The “K”?

At the time, I was a big star, and Frank Barcelona of Premier Talent asked me who I wanted on my show. I okayed Cream and The Who, something that I lived to regret. (Huge laugh.) One of the members of another group on the show, The Blues Magoos, was quoted as saying that my show was contrived, that I was paying girls to charge the stage, and that my show was pathetic. I never paid anyone to charge the stage, but I had to agree that my show was pathetic.

Why do you say your show was pathetic?

Why do I say that … because it was pathetic in terms of my inability to capture that moment as a harbinger of my future, and pathetic because I didn’t realize until too late in the game, while the game was running, that I did a big misstep by allowing (Cream and The Who) on the show. What they were doing was opening a door to a new phase of Rock and Roll that I was not a part of. They represented the future, and I represented the past. So the pathetic part was that I shot myself in the foot, but later on when I was in England, Pete Townshend from The Who put together a nice press conference for me, and Eric Clapton has always said nice things.

After The Detroit Wheels disbanded and the hits dried up, Crewe tried to remake you as a middle-of-the road crooner. Do you cringe now watching a late ’60s television appearance of Mitch Ryder, with neat short hair, in a Neru sport jacket, crooning “What Now My Love?”

You know, that’s a question I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about anymore … but when I do, it brings up a whole plethora of things. The first thing I ask myself is “Why? Why did allow myself to partake in it?” I did because the man that was guiding me in that direction, Bob Crewe, was the same man that gave me hit records.

So initially you thought it might be a good career move, even if you didn’t like the material?

At first, I didn’t know if it would be good for me, but as soon as the record was going to be released, my girlfriend at the time and I started calling up radio stations, telling them not to play it, but the damn thing got to number 30 anyway, which is now hard to believe. So I was against it even before it came out.

However, right after that, you rebounded with a great album, The Detroit-Memphis Experience, recorded with Booker T. and The MGs and Steve Cropper producing.

I really love that album.  I don’t know how to put this to you so you can appreciate it to its fullest extent. At the time, The MGs were the premier Rhythm and Blues group in America. Here I am coming off the major career disruption with Bob Crewe and go right into the arms of being down in Memphis at Stax Records with the MGs and The Memphis Horns. It was like pure heaven, better than anything I could have dreamed of. It was so cool!

You’ve been candid about your drug use. Was there a time when it seemed you might die if you didn’t stop?

It wasn’t like a Keith Richards thing, but it was definitely interfering with my life … and my health. You know, I did everything from heroin to something called Chinese White, a very strong opioid, but when the drugs become more important than your career, you might as well not be a performer any more.

At what point did you feel you had to stop?

Probably around ’83 when I did the album with John Mellencamp, but the problem was: After getting off drugs, I continued with the alcohol for several more years. Fortunately, I got out with my liver intact … my kidneys, heart … everything fine, because I had the sense to quit everything.

So everything is going well for you these days.

Well, I did have a throat operation in January, and there was a time after that when I was really wondering if I was ever going to sing again. Everything is fine now, but I don’t know how to impress upon you how close I came to death, willingly, if I couldn’t keep my voice.

Any final thoughts about life … your future ….

I’m just muddling through this life like everybody else, trying to survive and get to the finish line. Unfortunately, none of us gets to predict when that finish line might be. (Laughs.) There’s no reason to torment ourselves through this journey. Life is so short, when you analyze what we’re given. We have to cherish every moment, or we’re all gonna die sad and alone … That’s all I have to say about that.

© Elliot Stephen Cohen – All Rights Reserved