Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels

We seem to have lost the story arc of my big sister. Well, she got this job, and she had a boyfriend who worked at the radio station. For a while she was digging soul and funk but after she ditched the boyfriend she dabbled mainly in straight-ahead rock and roll. Good for me, because I like that too.

Anyhow, diggin’ around in her record collection the other day, I found one that really interested me. It’s Take A Ride, a 1966 LP by the venerable Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. You know these boys: from Detroit, they where white rockers heavily influenced by soul singers as well as the most dynamic black entertainers of the day. The Wheels dealt in high-energy, muscular R&B-flavored rock. Produced by Bob Crewe (Four Seasons), the Wheels cranked out hits like “Jenny Take A Ride” (1965) and “Devil With a Blue Dress” (1966). These songs both incorporated classic R&B songs to form a sort of medley: “Jenny” used “C. C. Rider” and “Devil” incorporated Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

Anyhoo, Mitch and the Wheels were coming off the success of “Jenny” when they cut Take A Ride. Now, the Wheels were a crack band – lead guitarist Jim McCarty, rhythm guitarist Joseph Kubert, bass player Earl Elliot (replaced in 1966 by Jim McCallister and monster drummer John “Johnny Bee” Badanjek. These guys played with an energy and fierce abandon that really made these songs jump: in fact, when “Jenny Take A Ride” was a hit it also hit No. 1 on the R&B charts, the first time a rock group accomplished that feat. Legend has it that the Rolling Stones were recording in the same studio the day that “Jenny” was cut, and they convinced Crewe that should be an A-side rather than the flip.

In addition to the hit, Take A Ride includes some sweaty white-boy versions of stuff like “Shake A Tail Feather” (James & Bobby Purify), “Bring It On Home To Me” (Sam Cooke), “Come See About Me” (Supremes) and not one, but three, covers of James Brown tunes. “I Hope” is an original, done beautifully ala The Drifters, complete with sweet soul/mariachi horns and some respectable harmonizing. “Baby Jane (Mo-Mo Jane)” is another original, and Ryder’s vocal vaguely recalls Bob Dylan here. Both “I Hope” and “Baby Jane” were relegated to B-sides, so they had a little more exposure outside the LP.

Among the rest of the covers, “Turn On Your Lovelight” is a standout, as is “Just A Little Bit” – which was also covered by the likes of Elvis and Van Morrison, but not as well as by Mitch Ryder. Of the three JB covers, probably “I Got You (I Feel Good)” is perhaps the most ill-advised, but Ryder acquits himself well on “Please Please Please” and “I’ll Go Crazy.”

Of course, you’ve most likely heard some Mitch Ryder’s tunes by other artists. Bruce Springsteen famously cobbled together the four tunes comprising the “Jenny” and “Blue Dress” singles – the version you hear on the No Nukes album (1979) and is still performed by Springsteen regularly. The Boss fanboys have retitled it “The Detroit Medley,” which at first glance seems odd, considering “Good Golly” and probably “C.C. Rider” are New Orleans songs.

But’s all to pay tribute to Ryder, who not only influenced Springsteen and Detroit rockers like Bob Seger, the MC5 and Ted Nugent but most likely another Michigan kid who formed his own band in the 1960s and changed his name to Iggy Pop. You can also hear Ryder’s influence in the version of “Shake A Tail Feather” performed by Ray Charles and the Blues Brothers in The Blues Brothers movie from 1980.

Ryder has performed regularly since the 1960s, mostly solo but occasionally with one or two members of his original Detroit Wheels. McCarty and Badanjek formed a band in the 1970s, the Rockets, that had some success (I saw ’em open for KISS in 1978) and they still play today as well. The last time the Rockets played was in 2010 and apparently they’re working on a new album.

And before you ask: are the incredibly great and influential Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Of course not.

MP3: “Shake A Tail Feather”

MP3: “I Hope”

MP3: “Jenny Take A Ride”

MP3: “Turn On Your Lovelight”

The official Mitch Ryder homepage

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