Sitting on the couch in his living room, Mitch Ryder chuckles at the memory of the first time he played the Riverbend Festival. His mood has nothing to do with the show itself, or the festival in general. It's a family thing.
Ryder grew up in Michigan and lived for most of his life in the Detroit area. It's where Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels were formed more than 50 years ago, and Mitch the artist and Detroit the city have been associated with each other ever since. He was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame there last summer.
Ryder moved to the Chattanooga area a year ago so his wife, Megan, could be closer to her family. She grew up in the North Georgia area.
"I like it here, especially the more I am here," Ryder says. "The weather is much nicer, and so are the people I'm learning. Here, people will trust you immediately until you prove otherwise. Up north, it seems to be the opposite."
But, back in 1998, when he agreed to play Riverbend, the relationship he'd had with Megan's father, the Rev. Homer Smith, up to that point was hardly warm and fuzzy.
"He thought I was the spawn of Satan," Ryder says. "He used to burn my records. Mine, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. He'd build these bonfires."
Ryder, who had a huge hit with the song "Devil With a Blue Dress On," had been told by the pastor that "he needed to get the devil out of his music."
"It's kind of my thing," Ryder told him. It paid the bills.
So, when the opportunity presented itself to play Riverbend in '98, he took it and agreed to do some media interviews as long as he could say his piece. He named Pastor Smith by name, calling into question who was acting the more Christian, in both the newspaper and in a radio interview, which Smith happened to hear.
"I got to say what I wanted and we ended up talking and had a good relationship after that," Ryder says.
The 73-year-old Ryder performs regularly, doing at least one, and sometimes two months-long tours in Europe. For his show here on Saturday, June 16, he will be using a group of Southern musicians he works with in this part of the country. The show starts at 8 p.m. on the Bud Light Stage.
Ryder spent last week in Austin, Texas, recording his first Christmas album, and will be releasing a new album in the next few months in Europe.
Ryder, born William Levise Jr. in 1945, bridged a gap between American pop/rock of the day and the Motown soul that was coming out of Detroit in the early-to-mid '60s. His high-energy, gravelly delivery on songs like "Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly," "C.C. Rider," "Jenny Take a Ride" and "Little Latin Lupe Lu" made him an international star.
Also inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame with Ryder last June were Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Impressions (which feature Chattanoogans Sam Gooden and Fred Cash), Larry Williams and posthumous inductees James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Mary Wells.
When asked about the induction and the class of fellow inductees, Ryder just shakes his head and says, "James Brown. Wow."
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.