Devil With A Blue Dress (1966)
They had everything going for them, including one of the greatest rhythm sections in history; a gallant, crazed, seminal guitar player named Jimmy McCarty; a genius drummer in John “Bee” Badanjek; Barry Goldberg’s nonpareil piano skills, and Ryder’s raw, gut-busting vocals. He was a man who could scream with the best of them.
To put some whipped cream on the sundae, their producer was Bob Crewe, who worked on hit after hit from the 1950s through the ’70s. His catalog reads like a Billboard Top 100 all by itself: “Silhouettes” by The Rays (1957); “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like A Man,” “Dawn” and a dozen more hits for the Four Seasons; The Toys’ “Lovers’ Concerto” from 1965; “Good Morning, Starshine” (1967); “Lady Marmalade” (1974) and many more.
Walk like a man, or else
One suspects that Ryder may have been difficult to work with because The Wheels morphed into The Rockets (not the root band of Crazy Horse) and even today McCarty and Badanjek play together occasionally. It may also have been poor choice of material after their high-tide years, which lasted from 1965 to ’67, that did them in.
Whatever the case, “Devil With A Blue Dress On” and its pioneering sampling of “Good Golly, Miss Molly” should be enshrined on the heights of Rock-N-Roll’s Acropolis, easily placing in the top 100 Rock songs of all time.
She know how to ball – Good Golly, Miss Molly
“Devil With A Blue Dress On” was originally written and performed by Shorty Long as the first release for Soul records, a label in the Motown stable, a secondary brand for the Detroit giant that focused on more traditional Soul and R&B, (although it was the label for Gladys Knight & The Pips.) Long’s version indeed is slow and bluesy; it boasts the superior lead guitar work by Robert White of Motown’s house band, The Funk Brothers. Interesting as it is historically, it is lackluster overall. The rest of the players were just mailing it in.
Wig hat and shades to match…
When Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels version kicks off, notice is served that some serious Rock-N-Roll blocking and tackling is about to be dished up. A hammering piano and sharp, matching organ chord are driven fast and hard by a tom-tom beating as fast as a sparrow’s heart and a celebratory tambourine. It is among the top 10 Rock-N-Roll intros of all time, joining the likes of “Satisfaction,” “London Calling,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and a handful of others.
Ryder swoops in like Tarzan with one long jungle scream followed by a short strangled scream before he exhorts his listeners to “jump up!”
The beat seizes you by the lapel and really does make you want to get up. In that, it is the quintessential “go-go-dancer” song and it’s easy enough to imagine (unless you want to watch a video) the girls in cages in fringed dresses, knee-high white boots and flip hairdos jumping and writhing to the hot-wire beat, shaming any aerobic workout from this century.
The main vocal opens with a wink to The Coasters’ 1959 hit, “Charlie Brown.”
Fee, fee, fi, fi, fo-fo, fum
Look at Molly now here she comes
Wearin’ her wig hat and shades to match
She’s got her high-heel shoes and an alligator hat
Wearin’ her pearls and her diamond rings
She’s got bracelets on her fingers, now
She’s the devil with the blue dress
blue dress, blue dress,
Devil with the blue dress on
So this Molly – no wonder Little Richard sang “good golly!” – is quite the fashionista. As the second verse powers in, the band cooks hotter, boiling, erupting musical lava in every direction. The drumming is precise yet sounds improvised. Goldberg’s fingers dance over the keys as if the devil’s got hold of him. Ryder is just warming up his vocal chords. As of yet, McCarty’s guitar is relatively restrained.
Wearin’ her perfume, Chanel No. 5
Got to be the finest girl alive
She walks real cool, catches everybody’s eye
She’s got such good lovin’ that they can’t say goodbye
Not too skinny, she’s not too fat
She’s a real humdinger and I like it like that
She’s the devil with the blue dress, blue dress, blue dress
Devil with the blue dress on
At this point, McCarty delivers an acidy, note-bending riff in the midst of a stop and radical tempo change that takes the song into its second part, a re-imagining and reworking of “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” Although more melodic, it is a precursor of late-’60s, early-’70s Heavy Metal guitar playing.
After the riff, bedlam breaks loose, the doors of the asylum bust open. The back-up singers are screaming and wailing as if being chased by ghoulish demons; Ryder stands toe-to-toe with Richard’s vocal version and if possible, the rhythm seems to pick up a few notches. Somehow, this treatment of “Molly” brings out the bawdier side of the story of a prostitute who just loves her work.
A sensible band would have buttoned-up their number at this point, maybe with a long fadeout jam. The instruments would have been cooled down and put in their cases and everyone would have had a cold brewski down on the corner. Not Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels.
At this juncture, McCarty turns in a guitar solo for the ages. Clapton, Hendrix, Van Halen, Slash, Neil Young – anyone – would all yield on this piece of work.
The band then returns to “Devil With A Blue Dress On” with a terrible Comanche-like vengeance. It is one of the most ferocious reprises in musical history, beyond Rock-N-Roll, beyond the solar system. In this verse, Goldberg’s magic piano takes over, prancing and pounding in turn, in a beer hall style that has the current of an electric chair running through it.
Just before the number ends, Ryder lowers his voice, singing confidentially, and then re-explodes into a screaming, ranting, groaning, wild-man performance that the engineers could only handle one way: the fadeout expected earlier. So strong is the finish that for all we know, to this day, they could still be singing and playing.
There is practically nothing in the Rock-N-Roll canon that compares to these 3-1/2 minutes of delectably fierce music.
- Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels’ songs like “Devil With A Blue Dress On” and their version of “C.C. Ryder” inspired Bob Seeger to stay with the “white” Detroit Rock sound.
- They also influenced the Boston-Worcester, MA-band, J. Geils, now adopted by Detroit as native sons. Ted Nugent, Bruce Springsteen and even MC5 – industrial-strength performers – all pledge allegiance to The Wheels.