Good Life

Grange Fair | Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels

It was as a teen growing up in urban Michigan when rock veteran Mitch Ryder, born William Levise Jr., got his first sense of the exhilaration of performing.

“I loved singing,” he said. “It came natural to me, and I remember being in choir in high school. I was on varsity choir when I did my first solo appearance for a school assembly. The kids liked it.”

He was hooked, he says, and that rush still comes back when he sings to a crowd, more than 50 years later.

“That’s the magic of the whole thing.”

Ryder, maybe known best to mainstream America as the voice behind the hit, “ Devil with a Blue Dress On,” says he prides himself on forging an alternate career in Europe, where he discovered crowds hungry for rock and roll. Overseas, he was able to record more than 20 albums that he says “never would have seen the light of day” in the U.S.

“It took some doing,” he said. “But it yielded a great deal of creative material that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do here in America, like getting a label to put it out.

“Europe loves rock and roll in general,” he said. “A lot of Americans don’t bother going there (to perform). As long as you’re willing to appear for them, they’re willing to come see you.”

Ryder, driven to sing and create, has been open about his struggles with the music industry — he says it’s still rife with “slimeballs” — that came early on in his career and which, according to his officially approved website, may have prevented the versatile, high-energy singer from achieving his true potential.

He was recognized early on as a soulful talent shaking up the Detroit music scene of the early ‘60s. Ryder first performed as Billy Lee in a high school band, Tempest, and soon after started fronting The Peps, a black vocal trio.

He was appearing with The Peps at early in 1964 when he ran across a group of musicians that would form his next group, Billy Lee & The Rivieras, and they began opening at a club north of Detroit and found themselves headlining over major Motown artists.

Their demo recording caught the ear of 4 Seasons producer Bob Crewe — the beginning of a tumultuous relationship — and the five Detroit teenagers headed for New York, where they played Greenwich Village clubs and changed their name to The Detroit Wheels. The record industry brought them fame — in ’66, “Devil with a Blue Dress On” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” were steady chart-climbers — but Ryder says he was left aching to create but without the medium. The bouts in the music business had torn the band apart.

“I began as an artist, and that all got stifled in New York,” he said. “They just wanted me to do cover songs. They didn’t encourage us to do original material.”

After separating himself from Crewe, a determined Ryder spent the next decades making music despite his initial experiences. His career has seen five Top 20 records and 13 Top 100 records and included a 1983 album, “Never Kick a Sleeping Dog,” produced by John Mellencamp.

He’s also painted himself as a singer who wouldn’t sell out in an autobiography, “Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend,” published in 2012. The book that took top slots the same year in both the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the National Indie Excellence Book Awards.

“I think what I tried to make clear in the book was how difficult it was to break away from being a manufactured star and make the transition into being an artist,” he said.

His performances, he adds, showcase some of the music he added to his repertoire throughout his transformation.

“First of all, we do a very good job on the classic material that people are familiar with,” he said. “Old fans that come to see us will be very well-satisfied. Then I throw in little achievements that will spark their imagination, things they will remember. I throw in stuff from the European catalogue and one or two cover songs by great artists.

“That’s how we keep it fresh.”