Whether it was jealousy, a feverish bout of patriotism or just plain old competitive fire that motivated them, Mitch Ryder and the band that was, at that time, named The Rivieras — the future Detroit Wheels — had to make a stand.
Opening for the Dave Clark Five in the mid-1960s in their hometown of Detroit, Ryder and company — as Mitch remembers it — left the headliners, and all who were witness to it, dazed with a frenzied, electrified performance that had all the fervor of a Pentacostal tent revival.
And for one turbo-powered night at least, the Motor City found salvation, and the British Invasion was stopped in its tracks.
“There was a panic amongst the young, vulnerable virgins of Detroit, and the British seemed to have a stranglehold on it,” recalls Ryder. “We saw it as an opportunity to be seen by somebody, a showcase. We knew there would be a big crowd there, because they were Brits and everybody was foaming at the mouth just because they were British. Detroit… bought into the British thing so badly that [radio stations] actually hired disc jockeys from England so they would have an English accent on the radio. That’s how sick it was.”
What was initially seen as a chance to open some eyes, and ears, with an energetic stage show and a propulsive, piston-pumping R&B sound injected with a shot of rock ‘n’ roll adrenaline became a destructive urge. It was nothing personal.
“We saw it as an opportunity, but then we became very upset and disturbed by what we felt was an undeserving, inordinate amount of attention being given to the Brits,” says Ryder. “And then, that particular evening, unfortunately for Dave Clark, it happened to him. So, we not only performed a stellar act, but we brought a passion and energy to it that night. We were in seek-out-and-destroy mode.”
It’s been said that the Rivieras’ conflagration lasted 90 minutes. “I do believe that would be an exaggeration,” laughs Ryder, “because we were only booked for 15. I do believe we stretched it into 35 minutes, something like that. But every minute that went by, you could see the agony growing deeper on the faces of the Dave Clark Five.”
Lots of acts that appeared on the same bill as Ryder would later run into the same buzzsaw. But that night was special. That night was the Rivieras’ coming-out party.
In the audience was the 4 Seasons producer Bob Crewe, drawn to Detroit that night after hearing a demo The Rivieras recorded in drummer John “Bee” Badanjek’s basement. The recording session was arranged by local DJ Bob Prince.
Knocked out by what he saw, Crewe hooked up with the group, and in February 1965, The Rivieras — Ryder, Badanjek, guitarist James McCartey and bassist Earl Elliot — plus rhythm guitarist Joe Kubert would leave the Motor City to find fame and fortune in New York City.
For Ryder, it was a time of redemption and a new identity. He was born William Levise Jr.; later, playing in a high school band called Tempest, he was known as Billy Lee. It was, however, in The Village, a black Detroit soul club, that Billy Lee, or Ryder, would first gain attention. Just 17, he recorded the R&B single “That’s The Way It’s Going To Be/Fool For You” for the Detroit gospel label Carrie in 1962.
“I was a year and a half away from being out of high school, I think,” says Ryder. “It
was pretty heady stuff to be a high school kid and have your own record out.”
Not content to stop there, Ryder began fronting a black quartet known as The Peps, often playing The Village. During this time, he encountered intense racism.
“It helped me see things from a different perspec