Few Baby Boomers can forget the mid-’60s hits of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels—“Sock It To Me, Baby,” “Devil With A Blue Dress On/Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and “C. C. Rider” among them. But other than the classic 1971 release with the band Detroit and a 1983 John Mellencamp-produced “comeback” album, few U.S. listeners have heard a note of Ryder’s 24 solo albums that have given him a lengthy and extremely successful second career in Europe. So, Ryder’s new one, The Promise, is intended to re-introduce the James Brown-inspired belter to the American market. Its release was timed to be promoted along with his new memoir, Devils and Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock Legend. Gratefully Ryder delivers in both print and on these 12 new cuts produced by the legendary Don Was. Ryder might not have the forceful delivery of old, but he demonstrates he’s grown in his mastery of songwriting, phrasing, and working in a wide range of styles.
Considerable credit must go to Was who assembled the back-up musicians, including keyboardist Jamie Mahuberac, bassist Reggie McBride, and guitarist Randy Jacobs. Two percussionists, featuring drummer James Gadsen, provide driving multi-layered grooves that keep the program hopping as the group goes back and forth between genres. For example, Ryder re-worked one of his older songs, “My Heart Belongs To Me,” correctly believing this ensemble could give it the Booker T. and the M.G.s Stax flavor he had wanted the first time around. Upon learning that singer Jimmy Ruffin was no longer recording, Ryder performed live the only non-original song on the album, “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted.” It captures the old style of Motown in an effort to inspire Ruffin to return to the music business. There’s a lot of ‘70s edged funk on several tracks, like the title cut. It’s earning considerable buzz for its lyrics which express the worries of the working class that hopes tomorrow “my child will have doctors and my child will have good schools.”
Ryder gets far more political with his tribute to Bob Dylan, “The Way We Were.” Here, Ryder uses talking blues to hit on nearly every aspect of contemporary issues with deliciously barbed wit. But Ryder also has fun, too, as with the Latin tango “Let’s Keep Dancing” and the catchy “Baby Don’t Stop Cryin’.” On the very personal side, “Back Then” is a belated “thank you” to his late parents. The soft ballad “Crazy Beautiful” features the piano work of Patrick Leonard, a keyboardist Ryder claims is one of his musical heroes. Altogether, the material is soulful music from the heart with nothing artificial or contrived in a single note.
From start to finish, The Promise showcases a musical maturity in both style and substance—make that styles. Sure, some of the settings evoke the sounds of bygone eras, but the lyrics, gritty vocals, and freshness of the studio players should appeal to a multi-generational audience. To mix a metaphor or two, here’s a case of an old fox teaching us new tricks and delivering on what he promises. Welcome back, Mitch. More?