Posted February, 2012
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. We’ve all heard the phrase and, in all likelihood, different rock stars come to each of our minds when we hear it. If you are one who only enjoys the music from your radio or other listening device and don’t delve into stories behind the people singing them, your image of the person behind the voice may be completely different from reality.
I’m often guilty of just this imperfection of perception (Just watch: someone will take that line a build a million selling song around it). In fact, until recently (and due to my lack of research early on), I had no clue as to just how true this phrase was for the voice behind some of the most iconic tunes of the soundtrack of the sixties.
I’m speaking, of course, about Mitch Ryder whose huge hits, Devil with a Blue Dress On, Jenny Take a Ride, and Sock It to Me – Baby had booties across the fruited plain twisting and shouting the nights away in the sixties. What we didn’t know was that Ryder was neck-deep – strike that – in head over heels into sex and drugs while he was rockin’ and rollin’ - so much so that the lifestyle led him down wrong paths, wrong business decisions and littered the landscape with broken relationships.
Since those days of Ryder’s biggest hits, he has remained alive and well, cranking out new music and touring the world to the delight of fans everywhere. In recent years, Mitch has made the tough (for him) decisions with regards to his actions and how they affect his relationships with others. The row he faces to hoe is a long one fraught with the symbolic rocks, weeds and overly hard soil as a result of his past decisions. But hoe he must and hoe he does.
Part of that hoeing involved the writing and recent release of Ryder’s incredibly well written autobiography, Devils & Blue Dresses. In this tome, Mitch tells his warts-and-all story as it has unfolded up to this point. It was while interviewing Ryder about his new CD, The Promise (see the review of that CD here) that I even learned that he had written Devils.
While Mitch was prepping his book for its release last December, he was also working on his latest CD, The Promise, which lands on February 14, 2012. I had the honor of speaking with Ryder about both his book and his CD over the course of two phone conversations as he prepared for an upcoming European tour in support of both projects.
I called Mitch at his Detroit area home. As I often say to people I interview when I know that they’re in the midst of an interview gauntlet, I made a comment about him having to endure pesty writers like me. His response to my comment revealed a dry, well-developed and wickedly funny sense of humor that permeated what became two one hour long phone conversations.
“Most of the interviews I’ve done have been really, really intelligent interviews. When they get squirrelly – and I don’t know how they sneak in there - every once in a while you get one that really should be writing for a high school newspaper.”
I knew that, if I was going to have a successful chat with this iconic man, I was in for a wild ride and I was going to have to be on my toes. He obviously doesn’t suffer fools lightly.
We began by discussing his upcoming tour.
“Yeah, we gotta go across the pond and do our annual tour. It’s so different over there. I can’t even begin to describe it to you. I was just looking at the two set lists I’m having to put something together: The one we’re doing for Callahan’s (Auburn Hills, Michigan) this weekend and then the European set list. The one at Callahan’s is sixteen songs and the one for Europe that I’ve gotten together, so far, is 32 songs long. It’s a big difference. I have a real deep catalog over there that I can draw on so it’ very different – the two different careers.”
Since he brought that up, I referred to a comment made during my recent interview with Cyril Niccolai where he said that the rock audiences in Europe is hit and miss, being non-existent in France. I asked Ryder for his opinion on that observation.
“France became the refuge for expatriates from the jazz scene and Germany, in all actuality, became the refuge for expatriates for the rock scene. That’s my take on it. It’s interesting. The one big difference is that they, historically, value their culture in a different manner than we do. For example, if I can try to describe it to you, if they take you on as one of the artists that they want to follow, they follow your whole career. Even the records that aren’t up to the quality and standards that they would have expected, it becomes a part of your history. Over here in America, unless you’re right there in everybody’s face on the hot 100, they don’t even know you’re alive.
“So, my advice to your friend is the time-honored advice: You need three things to make it happen for you and they all have to happen just like the stars in the sky and at certain very specific points. You’ve got to have talent. You’ve got to have luck and you’ve got to have connections. When those three things all collide at once, you’re in.”
I asked Mitch to drill in to more detail about his ‘two catalogs” comment.
“Yeah, it’s just the difference between being an oldies act and getting most of your gigs in the summer and going over there and doing contemporary material on one-nighters. I haven’t done many one-nighter tours here. It’s mostly weekend stuff unless I get involved in a package tour like Hippiefest. I was on that three times. Basically, you just come out and sing three or four songs or your “top tens” and then off stage. So, it’s not really a one-nighter tour like it is over in Europe for me.
“It’s getting harder at my age to do what is very difficult for young men to do and that is to be in a different city every friggin’ day. The hardest one I ever did was, I think, when we did 29 one-nighters in 31 days. After that, I went into arrhythmia. I had to go down to Barcelona to recover. We took a little place down there on the Mediterranean and it took three days for my heart to return to normal. We just relaxed for the last two days and did the tourist thing. Yeah, it was a tough one. I just burned out from doing too much. The shows are two and a half hours long with no intermission.
“It’s quite different from here. We’ll be doing a 75 minute set at Callahan’s when normally we’ll do a two and half hour set overseas. But the song catalog is deep enough to where I can pace things and throw in many different ballads that will slow things down so I can take a little breather. I don’t ever stop singing but I can at least manage the energy level. Over here it’s pretty much an in-your-face hard rock ‘n roll set. Over there I have choices.”
This was a perfect place to begin discussing Ryder’s new CD, The Promise - his first album in a couple of years. In response to my question as to what this particular album means to him, he said, “They all mean the same to me since I decided the big revelation, if you will, that came to me was that I was a ‘manufactured’ star. That separated me from the pack of legitimate artists. So, my entire career – from the time I broke with Bob Crewe – has been this long, long journey to constantly keep a chronicle and build a history of my growth and progression as an artist up to this point. The Don Was experience was just another one of those steps along the way where I’m trying to grow as an artist and be relevant to myself.
“As I’ve said a couple of times in the course of all these interviews I’ve been doing, it would help if they were successful but that’s not the point of doing it. The point is to acknowledge to myself that I’m capable of this growth and capable of making myself better at my chosen craft. Whether it’s acknowledged publicly or not isn’t the point. I can die happy knowing that I did it.”
The Promise is another great Ryder rhythm and blues project that provides lots of great music that should spark continued or renewed interest in his work. What does he hope the people that do listen to it take away from the album?
“This album with Don is essentially a rhythm and blues based album and he did a very good job of capturing my vocal timber and sound as it exists at my age. Quite frankly, I still have a very strong voice – probably, in many ways, better than it was before. I’ve increased my range.”
And what does he attribute that to?
“In-ear monitors”, he said with a chuckle, adding, “You don’t have to battle ego-maniac guitar players who think that they’re the only thing that’s on the stage. I actually lost some hearing to my right ear due to one guitar player. When I started using the in-ear monitors, I could hear myself and I wasn’t afraid to take chances in reaching for notes that, prior to that, I was afraid to take those chances because I didn’t know if I could even make them because I couldn’t hear whether I was making them or not. I wanted to stop doing bad concerts and use the technology. It’s been that way for a few years now. I’m very happy with that invention.”
All albums are labors of love for artists so I asked how long this album took to produce.
“Including the mixing time, I don’t know. I wasn’t really present for a lot of the mixing. It was just a couple of weeks. He’s (Don Was) done it that way with bigger artists than me. It really depends a lot on the budget. I imagine that he loves doing the Rolling Stones thing because they have deep pockets. He’s done quite a few of them since the middle nineties, I think. They trust him and he understands the dynamics. It’s like being, in many ways, the coach of a basketball team where you have to try and get some team work involved out of all the really eccentric personalities that exist there – the ‘stars’.
“He didn’t have that problem with me. I was pretty humble. I mean, having the opportunity with a producer of his caliber to work with and, then, the musicians he selected were all top class. It was an easy thing. I came prepared. That helped a lot when you don’t have to screw around the studio wasting time. Preparedness is essential and always has been. I have enough songs ready to go for a recording that may be asked of me after the tour in Europe. So that’s completely ready. The autobiography is finished and out. The album I’ve done is about to be released. I’m immensely – and very determinedly so – stuck in the middle of a musical that I’m creating – a musical stage play. That is really taking a lot of energy and research on my part – and study. I’ve read a number of books and educated myself on the process. I’ve learned how to construct it. It’s hard work! You have to apply yourself. So, there’s no moss gathering on any stone here!”
Mitch Ryder has worked on so many albums and has been in the business almost 50 years now. I commented that, while working on this album, he had to have a flood of memories as you compare the span of time.
“Yeah, but it’s a waste of time to go through them unless you’re chatting and trying to make conversation and share good road stories. These are good ol’ time stories or talk about other musicians that you’ve met. It doesn’t do any good to discuss the technology because once you’re in the studio, you still have the headphones on and you’re still listening to your voice. In the end, the technology has ups and downs. The same thing we have in the music world with the internet. There are problems inherent in the internet. There are problems inherent in the technology in the recording process. For a long time there was a great discussion about analog recording as opposed to digital and it was all based around decay time on tone. The digital people couldn’t solve that until recently. That was a big issue.
“On the internet, the big issue in the beginning was the blatant robbery of music from artists that weren’t getting paid for it. Even bigger than that, though, the downside to the internet is the fact that it created anonymity for people who, prior to that, wouldn’t have the courage to put their names behind their opinions. Now they’re just everywhere screaming everything and talking about anything and most of the time they’re not even well informed or educated enough to being doing so. And yet they have the anonymity to hide behind. That’s the downside of it.
“But, you get these cool stories once in a while. I know this one band, it took them a year but they sold a hundred thousand copies of their record and they did it using Pro Tools in their basement. But that’s the rarity. There’s so much out there, it gets overlooked. It’s a showdown between that style of creating and the major studios trying to keep control of the ship. I really don’t know where the answer lies or where it’s going to end up. I’m just happy that I had the chance to work in a great studio with a great producer, great musicians and what I think are pretty good songs.”
If I had a gun held to my head and had to pick a favorite (and I wouldn’t want to), I would say that Crazy Beautiful would be it. I asked Mitch what the back-story was on that tune.
“The New York Times called it ‘age relevant’. I guess that was a nice way of telling me that I’m getting older. But they did like the song. It started out with me trying to co-write with somebody. He threw out a line one day and his whole thing about writing is that he’s focused on women. Everything he writes is about women. He said, ‘She’s so crazy beautiful’ and I said, ‘You know, I’m tired of this. You need to broaden your view of life a little bit.’
“After he left, I said to myself, ‘What is there more important than girls? Life! Of course!’ Then I wrote the song. ‘Life is crazy beautiful’. That’s how that developed.”
Another cut from the album that I’m absolutely nuts over is Ryder’s cover of the Jimmy Ruffin Motown standard, “What Becomes Of the Broken Hearted”. It gives me chills every time I listen to it.
“I only included that for performance purposes to show people where my chops are. It felt good. I was singing it and when I made the decision during the song to make it something more than a cover version, when I turned loose on it and turned around, the drummer had a big smile on his face and everyone got energized then we drove it home. That was really cool.”
Taking my next question right out of my mouth as if he was reading my mind, Mitch added, “My other favorite is The Promise. It has nothing to do with Obama. In fact, it was written before he was elected. For me, those are the essentials in life. I’m not a rich man and I relate very, very closely to the working class population of America. Those are the things that are important to our class of people – things that other people take for granted because they have the money.
The passion is clearly boiling underneath the surface as Ryder continues.
“If you don’t have insurance and your kids don’t go to a school where they can get educated and you don’t have good tools to work with, and you can’t get medicine for your wife and your children when they need it, you’re not living in a fair country. You’re not living in a country that thinks of its citizens first. You’re living in a country that values materialism and possessions over human life. That is just wrong as wrong can be! The politicians are gonna find out because they think that this is just about how many votes Mitt Romney got in New Hampshire. This is about whether this government can stand much longer in its present form. There will be an evolution, very close to a revolution.
“This ‘Occupy’ thing is just some kind of aberration – vision – of what really needs to be said. It’s very, very hard on too many people. The government can’t stand the way it’s being run now. We just can’t keep sending people to Washington so that they can become millionaires and avoid the people that sent them there. So it’s time to stop being fooled by the rhetoric because it’s always been the same. The rich will protect the rich and they don’t care about the poor or even the middle class which they’re trying to destroy. The effort of the people trying to retain themselves in the middle class is costing them their families because you have two parents at work and you’ve got nobody to raise the kids. It’s just crazy. It can’t stand the way it is. It’s bound to collapse.”
With the state of the union obviously weighing heavily on Ryder’s heart, I asked him if he felt that there was much in the way of “message” music like there was in the sixties and seventies.
“To be honest with you, just let me say that I’m not an avid follower of current music so I couldn’t give you an honest answer to that. But, what I do know is what I hear on the radio and I haven’t heard anything on the radio that could match what we’re talking about. When I say that I’m ignorant, I’m saying that I can’t give you the name of a group that practices this kind of art form.
“I made a mention in my book about the song Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I said something like, ‘Yeah, and they were the first ones who bring that to the public attention and I would like to think that they sent the money they earned from the royalties on that song to the families of the students who were killed or injured.’ It’s clearly cynical and sarcastic but, you know, where did that money go? I can tell you that it didn’t go for a liver! He (David Crosby) had to pay for that a long time after. But it did bump him up the ‘A List’. He got a liver over some poor guy that was probably younger than him and needed it worse but he got it because he was the big guy.”
Did I happen to mention that Mitch Ryder is quite outspoken and opinionated?
With the release of The Promise pending, I asked Ryder what his tour plans were for the U.S.
“I don’t know. They haven’t been good. Last year was really hard. It was the worst year in my entire career – in America. I’m only talking about America. So, I’m either going to fire my agent and get a new one or move to Europe. I don’t really have many choices. I can’t sustain myself if it turns out like last year. Last year was a real piece of crap to have to deal with for a number of reasons. The money I was earning I was having to finance the recordings and publicists and different things like that and preparation for my new project. I’m financing all of it. Some of the money’s being fronted to me but it’s going to be collected. It’s going to be gotten back before I ever see a cent. But I did use a good deal of my own money to make this happen. I’m hardly in a position to do it but I couldn’t stand to watch myself disappear from the American landscape without giving everything I’ve got including, practically, our livelihood. Nobody can fault me for doing my very best to make it happen.”
When I shared that I felt that that there was keen interest in the latest work by so-called “legacy acts”, Ryder said, “Well, there’s the key. There’s the key right there. What’s the new work? Have these artists been true to their craft their entire career?”
Then comes another Ryder rib poke.
“I’m not going to mention his name but he’s from the Detroit area and he put out two albums in the last twenty years. He’s on a comeback now and he’s touring again. But, for most of those twenty years he just spent living a life of luxury because he had earned it. You can’t fault the man for spending the money that he earned, right? But you can fault him for deserting his fans. That’s the part I didn’t like about it. He’s got several trophies for yacht contests and whatever. Now he needs money to maintain his lifestyle so he’s back out there doing it. Unfortunately, he’s been out of it for so long he’s still trying to get his voice together. One of the tours he did he had to lower his keys – four keys some of them. That’s a big drop in range. Plus, he smokes like a chimney. He’s overweight.” Then, with a tone in his voice that betrays the twinkle that had to be in his eyes, he added, “But I’m not gonna tell you who it is. I’ll just let you wonder.”
I’m clueless as to who he’s talking about.
Ryder comes back around to my comment about fans being interested in the new work of by the icons of our youth by highlighting the downside of the Hippeifest type of touring packages. “But, see, then you couldn’t have those 4-song-per-artist things. You’d have to turn that into a festival – a weekend festival and let these artists that do have the credibility to do it, come out and show you what they’ve been doing. I’d love a crack at something like that. I’d love to mix both of my bands – my American band and my European band. I’d like to fly them over and show them off, too. They’re very, very good.” Then, again with his self-deprecating humor, he adds, “Well, with the medical advances are going they’ll probably be able to keep me alive long enough for it to happen. We’ll see.”
Clearly still artistically productive with lots still in him to come out, I asked Mitch what he would like to do that he hasn’t yet done.
“Well, the musical. Then I think I’d like to write a fiction book. You know? Something in the arts that I’m qualified for and have the background for. What really helped immensely in preparing for the musical stage play was actually writing lyrics for the CD’s that I’ve been putting out. The whole secret to songwriting is to hit the most people with the fewest amount of words. It called ‘universality’ and that’s what gives you hit records. If it doesn’t give you hit records it still allows you to connect with the most people. You have to learn how to do that – how to communicate in the simplest form with the most inclusive words.
“That prepared me for the writing of the libretto for the play because that’s essential in a play – you maximize the intent of the word and minimize the use. In fact, in theater you’re instructed to make sure that the audience can read the nature and the make-up of the character more by his presence and body language and actions on stage than anything he might speak. What he or she does speak has to be an affirmation of what the audience already suspects is the nature or character of the actor. That was an important lesson to learn as I studied creating this thing I’m involved in. That’s next on the docket. But, as I said earlier, I’m totally prepared to go into the studio tomorrow and walk out with a CD a few weeks later.
“I’m just a little ticked off about my age and discovering that I have all of these desires and wasted so many of my years just being a drug addict and a drunk. This is how it comes home to roost. When you really fall in love with the gifts you’ve been given, you find you’re being robbed by time. It’s crazy but it’s natural and nobody’s got more than one ticket a piece.”
As we quit chatting like a couple of rock and roll school girls, we got down to the matter of discussing Ryder’s autobiography, Devils and Blue Dresses. As I said in my review of the book (here), not only was I captivated with the stories in the book, I’m genuinely impressed with how incredibly well written the book is. As we began to discuss the book, I told him as much. His response reflects the struggles that Mitch has gotten used to in his storied career.
“I took it on as a challenge simply to see if I could do it – if I had the ability to write. So far, everybody’s telling me that I have so I really have considered, ‘You know? Maybe I ought to write a book of fiction and see if I can make that transformation from an autobiography to fiction.’ That’s my plan in between, maybe, another CD. But, you know, the clock is ticking and I’m not 20 years old anymore. I’ve got all these grand ideas about these challenges I want to take on and one has to wonder if I will have the opportunity to do it.
“But to allude to the problem we’re having, it is apparently a very well written book and all of the reviews are fantastic. The problem we’re having is getting the literary world to accept it as something other than another junkie, rock and roll memoir. And the fact that I didn’t use any assistance in the writing – I wrote it myself – is important to me because I didn’t think anybody else would be capable.
“You know, you get autobiographies and they hire people to help them write it. Their job is to go in and cover up the warts and the nasty little things that don’t look good or feel good and make the character some kind of god. That wasn’t my intent at all. My intent was to simply tell the truth from the beginning to the end. My mom told me a long time ago that it can’t hurt you. It can only help you. She was not a simple-minded woman but she was an uneducated woman who quit school in the sixth grade down in Tennessee to go pick cotton to help keep the family alive. She gave me a lot of the really good advice that I’ve had in my life.
“For example, she told me, when I told her I wanted to be a singer, she said, ‘Okay, but you make sure you be you and don’t become a part of a group. Groups change and people come and go and nobody knows their names. You keep your own name. That will live as long as you live and you won’t have to worry about an ever-changing cast of characters around you and nobody knowing who you are.’
“In short, there’s only one Mitch Ryder and that’s because my mom told me that. She told me the other things, too, that I was sharing with you on the last call. Some of the most wise things come from folks that have lived through it and have experienced it. It’s not just throw-away quotes given to you from high-minded people who think they’re something. It’s from folks who have lived it and know what it’s about.
“So, anyway, we’re having trouble convincing the literary world that this is a book worthy of getting some attention from people that like to read books and, basically, the people that are buying and reading the book are involved, in one way or another, with the rock and roll world. You can’t blame them. If you remember who Mitch Ryder was, which is a big problem as well because you have to remember it’s been, what, five decades since I’ve had those hits. Just getting people to even remember that name then, when they do, they have a stereotype in mind. It’s an uphill battle.
“But it is a good book, I agree with you. Let’s hope that we can make that crossover and somehow get somebody from that other world where books are written by people for a living and get them to at least read it and give us an opinion about it.
In response to my add-on comment that one of the purposes of Boomerocity is to inform baby boomers of the latest work and activities of our heroes from back in the day, Mitch said, “I appreciate that so much because I have a great volume of work created but it’s all been overseas. As far as the American public knows, the last time I’ve had anything out here was the Mellencamp album in ’83 (Never Kick a Sleeping Dog). That was the last time I charted and that was a feat in itself considering most of my stuff was from the sixties.
“So, for all intents and purposes, unless they see me on a tour - if they see me, they’ll remember me. But, out of sight, out of mind, you know? That’s pretty much what it is. It’s not about a shrinking demographic. They’re still alive, most of them. They just don’t know. They don’t know where I am. They don’t hear about me. Now, these two projects are coming, we’re getting some attention for them. Hopefully, it will all work out for the best.”
I commented that the book caused me to wince a lot. He chortled, “YOU winced a lot? I couldn’t go to the bathroom for three days after one paragraph!” When I said that I put myself into his shoes as I was reading Devils, he chuckled and said, “You must have gray hair by now!”
The foundation of Mitch’s career is set in his R&B days in the greater Detroit area – particularly when he was with a black group called the Peps. Because of comments I’ve heard during my interviews with greats like Bonnie Bramlett and Rob Parissi – both of whom cut their teeth in black dominated genres – I asked Mitch what were some of the experiences he’s had working in a black world.
“I have had in the past mixed groups in terms of ethnicity. But my biggest reference was to one of my earliest experiences when I was first coming up and I became part of an a cappella group at their invitation. They were called The Peps. It was an all black group except for me. What I learned was two things and I think I did a pretty good job in describing those in the book. First of all, my parents weren’t racists so I didn’t have any fears or any of that going into my relationships with those people. We worked in the same place. We were friends. You know? Music is beautiful for that. Music is color blind so it’s just a wonderful place to come from.
“They allowed me to sing with them and learn from them and actually learn to sing the music that I wanted to sing which was R&B. I was in the Varsity Choir and was being trained by my vocal instructor to sing classical and semi-classical music and I had won awards for doing that in the Michigan area. When I became successful and he’d hear the kind of music I was doing, he went out of his mind. It was like he had thrown away five years of his life training this man. He taught me to breath from the stomach and when you do R&B your energy’s coming from your throat and not your stomach. So he just flipped right out.
“The second thing that I got was not only a peek but an immersion into the black culture because we were hanging out all the time together. I was going with them to watch them get their hair ‘did’, as they called it. They had that big bucket of lard and they’d put it on their hair, smooth it all out, comb it through and then they’d scrape off the excess and throw it back into the big bucket and that would be what would go on the next persons head. I actually had my hair done that way. It really looked kind of stupid on me.
“I remember one gig we were doing. This lady come up to me and said, ‘You know what?’ and she hugged me and she said, ‘You sing so pretty and you’re so light!’ and I’m going, ‘Whoa! I must be fittin’ in here somewhere!’
“Another thing I pointed out in the book, too, is that there was a difference in our appearances in front of white audiences and in front black audiences. The black audiences didn’t have much of a problem with me being there as much as the white audiences had with my black friends being around me. But it wasn’t ever anything violent. It never turned into anything violent. But, as you know, it was just a few scant years later – just a couple – when Detroit broke out and had some of the worst riots we’ve ever had in our history – the race riots.
“Musically and also socially it was a very positive thing that occurred in my life – that immersion into the black culture. I didn’t do it out of curiosity. It just happened. We wanted to sing together and we were looking for a certain sound. What we were thinking was, ‘Okay, let’s find a sound people are going to really enjoy.’ We looked at it as a competitive thing, actually – not race-wise but competitive against other groups that were in the arena at that time. It was a very positive experience for me.
“Later on, when I ran into the bad side of some of the black culture, it was no different - getting my wallet stolen by a black guy was no different to me than getting it stolen by a white guy. It hurt just as much.”
Do those experiences still impact Ryder today?
“My passion, as I said early on, after being trained to go classical and semi-classical and then choosing to rhythm and blues, that has always been my goal – to be one of the best rhythm and blues singers in the history of our country.
“I got paid a very high complement at one time. He wasn’t a friend but he was an acquaintance. We did bump into each other quite a bit. I believe that James Brown was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and they asked him who he thought was the best white soul singer was. He thought for just a split second and mentioned my name. I went out of my mind when I heard that. For most of the population in America it didn’t mean crap but to me, it was like the king passing the sword down.
“I always looked at my friends – Wilson Picket, we did a tour together and Otis Redding, getting to know him – I always viewed them as sort of competition. They were in a place I wanted to be. I wanted to be considered to be one of those R&B singers because that was the music that moved me. That was the music that really, really thrilled me.
“If you order the hardcover book, there’s a code in the back and you’ll get the new CD downloaded for free. They’re all original songs on there except for one and it’s taken from a live concert. It’s my interpretation of What Becomes of the Broken Hearted by Jimmy Ruffin. It’s a good example of what my capabilities as a rhythm and blues singer are if you listen to the performance.
“I’m proud of the album. I’m proud of the book. These come as – not surprises but as very, very sought after and welcome gifts and acknowledgements. My entire career – to be honest about it – has been about getting rid of the perception that Bob Crewe had manufactured a star. I want to be known – and go down swinging – as an artist of my own accord and judged by my own production and quality and output. It was important to me to keep a journal of this and the only way to keep a journal of your progress is to create. That explains all of that production that went on overseas. I had to keep a record of my growth as an artist and how I was developing and what my capabilities were. Whether anybody knew it or not, at least I would know – when the lights were about to be turned off – that I had done the very best I could with what God had given me. That’s all that mattered to me and that’s all that still matters to me.
“When you do something and take on a challenge and have it come out well, it doesn’t keep the lights on in the house but it really makes me feel good. If we happen to get a hit somewhere along the line with one of these projects, well, that’s a blessing and it will be a welcome blessing, too. We don’t live a lavish lifestyle at all. We live a very typical American lifestyle and we worry about the bills every month just like everybody else. The good part of the whole thing is somehow I have managed to keep me and my family alive – our families, actually – by doing something I love.
“There was only one point in my life where that didn’t occur. I talk about it – the years I was in exile in Colorado and I actually had to work (hanging seamless gutters and warehouse work). I call it ‘work’ because I don’t consider what I do ‘work’. It’s just pure fun. It’s hard and you put a lot of hours into it – sometimes 16 or 18 hours a day. You get to choose your own schedule but choosing your own schedule don’t mean nothing if you’ve got to get a quart of milk and you don’t have the money for a quart of milk, you’ll work 20 hours straight if you have to. So, yeah, you’ve got the freedom to choose your own hours but you’ve also got the pressure to survive.
A friend of mine recently told me a joke that I shared with Mitch. It goes something like this: Do you know the difference between a musician and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four. Getting a very real laugh out of that, Ryder shared, “Yeah, when you do the club circuit you’re lucky if you get a good check. That’s why I hate doing clubs and why I won’t do them if I don’t have to. Used to – I’m talking about decades ago before I got wise – they’d come and say, ‘Well, we didn’t sell enough drinks. I can’t give you what I promised you.’ And there you are trying to figure out how you’re going to get the gas to get to the next gig. It’s a stupid, stupid world. But, if you do it the right way, which I’ve kind of learned to do, you will get at least half of your money up front before you leave the house.
“I used to marvel at the behavior of people like Jerry Lee and Little Richard but they were the pioneers and are the ones who really got raped and screwed. They’re the ones who brought that whole change about – pay us half up front and the rest right before we go on. They’re the ones who paid the price and drove all of those thousands of miles and they’re the ones who starved and they’re the ones who got kicked out of their houses. They’re the ones who blazed the trail for people like me and God bless them. They’re the reason why we have the protections – what little protections we do have.”
In Devils & Blue Dresses Mitch shares quite a bit of detail about industry legend, Bob Crewe, who figured largely in Ryder’s career in the 60’s. Not to give away some of the great stories in the book, I did ask Mitch if it was a fair statement that Crewe can be viewed in the same light as one of his contemporaries, Morris Levy.
“Yeah, except I don’t think that he was as violent. He didn’t have that violent streak in him that Morris did. Morris really thought like a gangster. I don’t think Crewe did. I just think Crewe was narcissistic with a little touch of evil in there. It wasn’t evil born of wanting to deliberately hurt somebody. It was an evil born of selfishness. He would rather pay himself some extra money to have fun with than to treat his artists the right way and pay them what he owed them.”
In his book, Ryder states that he feels that he was screwed out of millions of dollars by Mr. Crewe. Why hasn’t he pursued Crewe for the money?
“Statute of limitations. We are collecting royalties on a quarterly basis – me and the rest of the Wheels because we sued Morris Levy. He (Levy) died and we continued the suit with his son and we settled with his son. However, they only allowed us to go back so many years. They didn’t allow us to go back and sue for the money that was taken in the gravy years when those things were selling millions and millions and millions. Had they been, those people would be broke right now. Now that Jersey Boys is a theater piece – which it shouldn’t be; it has nothing to do with theater – Bob Crewe was quoted as saying it was like hitting the lottery twice. He’s back in the bucks. He’s rolling in the dough.”
Out of the blue, Ryder shared something he said that Crewe told him regarding the inspiration behind a very popular song in the 70’s.
“One time, I spoke to him, oh, a long time ago but not long ago like back when we were working together – maybe 20 years ago – and he told me how he wrote My Eyes Adored You. I will share that with you because I thought it was so scary.
“He said that he sat on a bed and he had arranged it so that he was completely surrounded by mirrors and then he wrote My Eyes Adored You. Honest to God. That’s pretty telling, isn’t it? To each his own.”
While Ryder clearly – if not rightly – harbors much animosity towards Bob Crewe, he’s objective in his opinion of him.
“I also say in the book – and it’s true – we wouldn’t have had the hits without Mr. Crewe and we wouldn’t be talking today. I wouldn’t be Mitch Ryder if it wasn’t for Mr. Crewe. Give the man credit where credit’s due but he didn’t make my life easier from a financial point of view but he did give me fame. My mission has been to redefine that fame on my terms so I can keep my self-dignity and respect for myself. That’s what this journey has been about.
“The fame that he handed me was like a hot potato or a grenade about to go off. I had to take that from the beginning and redefine it over all these decades. I have and now I’m at a point where I’m able to share that with the public. Hopefully, in the future, I can share even more with the public that would be interested in that kind of a story. But today’s generation has its own heroes. The ones that followed me had their own heroes. The story has to be universal in its meaning in order to appeal to the broadest amount of people. Otherwise, we’ve got my demographic.”
Then, as if to lighten the tone of his words just a bit, Mitch adds, “I tell them at my concerts, ‘don’t stand up if you want an encore. I don’t want anyone getting hurt.’ I look out for my people” Ryder concludes with a laugh.
Prior to our second call – and because of what Mitch had shared about him – I looked up the current status of Crewe. I was stunned to learn from a statement by his brother on Bob’s website that he was still alive but living in an assisted living facility in Casco Bay, Maine, with much of his thinking reportedly “confused”. As Mitch and I talked Crewe, it became apparent to me that Ryder didn’t know what the current status of Bob Crewe was at the time of our chat. I shared the news with him.
“This isn’t news! He wasn’t all there mentally fifty years ago!” Mitch said, laughing and then, in a more serious tone said, “I feel bad about that. I feel bad because I don’t want any human to suffer needlessly. Mr. Crewe didn’t treat us fairly and there’s a lot of people out there in the world who aren’t going to treat people fairly. But, if you’ve got it in your mind and your heart to treat everybody as your equal – ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – those are simple rules, you know? They’re older than the hills! Life is not as complicated as we choose to make it.”
In the book, Ryder shares a story that I would have paid real good money to have witnessed. It involves the time that he saw Tina Turner in the nude.
“Sure did! It was everything it was cooked up to be. You could hear her fists bouncing off of Ike’s head after the door closed. He was so messed up when he opened the door that he actually thought I was Mick Jagger. She responded by coming to the door nude.” Then, in what I now know to be Ryder’s sharp, dry sense of humor, he added, “I feel bad for her. That’s probably what led to their divorce.”
Speaking of Jagger, Mitch, in making brief comments about various artists at the back of his book, makes a very pointed comment regarding the Rolling Stones. He wrote, “For me . . . silence is a virtue.” I wanted the “un-virtuous” version so I asked him for it.
“I can say it’s their arrogance. Let’s be honest about it. I haven’t fallen out of a coconut tree because I’ve had the good sense to not try to climb one. I’m sixty-seven years old. I think he (Richards) ought to take up surfing next. But I do love their music. Absolutely.”
For you Beatles fans, Ryder also shares a heartwarming story about his encounter with John Lennon. I asked him about that.
“He was the good Beatle. There are a lot interesting parts in the book. My battle with identifying my sexuality and those issues; the stuff we like to hide but I don’t hide anything in the book. John Lennon, to the core of his heart, was a good person. I don’t know what it was in his chemistry that made him come out that way but the guy really cared.”
Mitch never met Lennon again. However, he did share that, “I did have the pleasure of an entire album with his guitar player. He had a band in New York called Elephant’s Memory and Wayne Gabriel – who is now deceased – was one of the key components of that group. Wayne created the whole album How I Spent My Vacation which was the first album I did after coming back from Colorado. It’s beautiful guitar work. When you listen to the album you can understand why Lennon chose him as a guitar player.”
Because Ryder details the myriad personal battles he’s fought and is fighting, I asked if the book was cathartic for him.
“It was just the documentation and also to prove whether or not I could write. It was taking on a challenge, seeing if I could do it which is important as an artist. I don’t think it was cathartic. I think it was just documentation – just so it is documented, get it out of the way, put it in the past and keep moving forward now. I’ve got other stuff to do. I thought it was necessary to document that.
“There was a book called It Was All Right written by James A. Mitchell who visited the house quite frequently to do tapings for that book. But that deal was mostly with my life in music and it doesn’t deal with my personal life like my book does.”
Mitch makes no bones about his responsibility for the destruction of many of his personal relationships. He pretty much blames himself for the emotional debris he’s caused and left strewn over his personal landscape. By doing so, has it helped at all in mending those relationships?
“Well, we’re waiting for that. There’s a lot of things that can happen. The inevitable lawsuits if the book sells enough – they will suddenly appear because, at the scent of money, the woodwork squeaks and out comes the freaks. So, we’re waiting on that one.
“The bigotry and the bias, I haven’t had anything like that. I haven’t been confronted with that as of yet. I’ve gotten an enormous amount of support and applause and accolades for not only the work itself and the manner in which it’s constructed, but also for the fact that I chose to tell it in such a forthright manner without trying to hide anything. I do believe that it goes to what my mother told me: Tell the truth. Warts and all, it’s there.
“There were some deletions but they weren’t by my choice, they were by the Legal department. There must’ve been something there that they thought was pretty explosive. They weren’t afraid of it, they just said, ‘You know, why part ourselves through this if we don’t have to?
“So, as I told them, ‘we have a general consensus of philosophy here in Michigan. We can live with omissions but we will not tolerate a lie.’ If you don’t mention something, then it doesn’t become a topic.”
I asked Ryder if the book has helped him in healing his emotional wounds as well as those whom he was and is close to. Half expecting, at best, some PR spun feel-good story or, at worst, be told that it was none of my business, Mitch bared a piece of his heart and soul about the very sensitive matter.
“Those relationships don’t work off of Daddy’s product or what he puts out for the public. Those are much more personal and closer. There has been a strengthened bond between my wife and myself. My children – that’s the hardest part of the whole thing. My natural children are having a really hard time. My son teaches. He’s a teacher at a university here in the Detroit area. He’s won several awards for his writing. He was really, really young when I abandoned the family so he’s having a hard time with it. But he’s a very, very intelligent young man.
“We have gotten together, broken apart and gotten together and, currently, we’re broken apart. The issue is that they want – and they expect – to have a very private dialog with their father absent of reflections or sharing with my wife. I can’t have a strong marriage unless I’m willing to share everything in my life with my wife. My children resent that. I think they need to grow a little more beyond that point. They don’t have to accept her as ‘Mommy’ but they do have to honor our marriage and the fact that what makes a strong marriage is sharing. Once they get to that point and no longer demand that Daddy be separate from his current wife – I’m asking them to just be civilized and cordial towards her. They don’t have to be in love with her but they have to accept the fact that she is my wife and that’s important in my life. To try to circumvent that and create a separate dialog behind my wife’s back makes it very, very difficult.
“This comes from their missing me. It’s one thing to lose your dad to a divorce. But, then, to lose a famous dad to a divorce, that’s another burden on top of them. I understand what they’re going through. I really do and it breaks my heart to see them make the choices they’re making right now. Hopefully, they’ll see the light; they’ll see the wisdom in what I’m trying to tell them.
“We can have a wonderful relationship for the rest of our lives together. You’ve simply got to accept the fact that a marriage is a sacred institution and, if you want it to work and you want it to work correctly, you have to be transparent with your spouse. You can’t have secrets. Even though it’s simple little things like talking about each other or with each other about the past and trying to repair the past with them, that’s one thing.
“But the dialog I’ve had with them so far, there are deliberate attempts on their part – ‘Don’t share this with Megan!’ Almost like a demand. ‘We want this simply between us and we don’t want this shared with anybody’ and it’s conflicting. It’s really tearing me apart. Just up until Christmas, everything was going fine and, then, this weird thing from the past – this unresolved past we haven’t come to grips with as father to son and father to daughter is really making it difficult to keep that going. It’s really emotionally draining. Sometimes, all you can do is pray. I know that it’s a copout.”
With roughly fifty years and counting in this business, I asked Ryder how do he want to be remembered and what he hopes his legacy will be.
“I think just somebody who took the tools that was given to them and made the best he could with them – whether it was a hammer, shovel or pen. It really doesn’t matter. It could be on anybody’s gravestone – somebody that took the tools he had and did the best he could with them. Just as simple as that, really.”
As we wrapped up our final chat and we thanked each other and wished each other well, Mitch Ryder said added to his good-bye with one more shining example of his acerbic but wickedly funny wit by saying, “I want you to know the next free moment I have, I’m going to BobCrewe.com. I want to see what kind of assisted living he’s getting.”