You wouldn’t expect to find a rock legend in Angell Hall’s stuffy Auditorium A on a weekday. But that’s exactly where Mitch Ryder, the ’60s Detroit rock pioneer of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, was hanging out yesterday morning. Ryder spoke in front of lecturer Bruce Conforth’s American Culture class, History of American Popular Music.
“I’ve known Mitch for 15 years,” Conforth said. “I have a tremendous respect for his art and tremendous respect for him as a person. If anyone was going to say this stuff in front of the class, it would have to be Mitch. This is the only man I could think of for the job.”
Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, who propelled the enduring hits “Devil with a Blue Dress On,” “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and “Sock It To Me Baby” into the permanent stratum of popular American culture. They rode parallel to Barry Gordy and Motown’s stronghold on the Detroit scene in the 1960s. Fusing borrowed soul and blues with a brand of rock’n’roll all their own, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels launched five songs into the Top 40 in 1966 and 1967.
The 61-year-old Ryder spoke to the class in the same gravelly voice that once ripped and rolled through “Jenny Take a Ride” and “I Like It Like That.” He told the class about his days in the burgeoning Detroit rock scene. “Everything about being a star at 18 or 19 is very, very attractive,” she said.
The predecessor to such Detroit-born acts as Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5, Ryder also explained the creative energy that has roared through the city since his days as a musician. “Michigan and Detroit have been breeding grounds for talent because there’s a determination and a frustration here,” Ryder said. “It’s a working-class city – how many ways out do you have? There was this frustration among white teenagers trying to get our music heard.”
Ryder’s appearance in the class was unexpected. “I was really surprised. I’m glad I didn’t go home early for break,” LSA junior Jolene Bricker said. Though Bricker, like many of Conforth’s students, was not a fan of the band before taking the class, she had respect for Ryder and his music. “I think everyone knows ‘Devil with a Blue Dress On.’ “
Ryder is a Detroiter through and through. And in the face of the city’s struggling scene, he’s doing exactly what he was born to do: making music. He played two unreleased songs for the class, which he called “rough masters.”
The first was a gospel-inspired tune about a sexual encounter that Ryder described as having “an energy I haven’t touched on in many decades.” The second song, a slow variation on a 12-bar blues called “Star No More,” was what Conforth called “one of the most heartfelt things I’ve heard in a long time.”
These days, Detroit’s musicians have a much harder time trying to get by in the city. After the class, Ryder seemed even more willing to express his personal opinions about this aspect of the city. He said that many bands here fail to stay true to their roots. The White Stripes, one of the most successful rock bands to come out of Detroit in recent years, barely escaped Ryder’s scrutiny. “(Jack White’s) doing what Iggy did. He’s doing the movie-star thing. He’s not committed to Detroit,” Ryder said.
According to Ryder, this unwillingness to stay in the city may be the problem with the music scene itself. “You know you have to leave the city to get a record deal anyway,” he said.
And that isn’t the only difference Ryder sees between the Detroit of his youth and the city as it is today: “There are fewer opportunities for musicians to play, fewer clubs, fewer venues and an absence of a powerful or even moderately powerful label here.”
If Detroit wishes to return to its days as the gritty musical bastion of the Midwest, Ryder said that it must continue to fight for its status. “When someone kicked me, my street sense told me to kick them back – It’s the same with our sports teams, too. We’ve got to beat our opponent into the ground in order to get any recognition. But it makes us stronger.”