Backhanded Compliment: Jim McCarty, Not Mike Bloomfield, Played Those Detroit Wheels Hits

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Hey everybody! I’m in the desert driving some Mustangs today. Please give a warm welcome to Ronnie and check out his story of a forgotten bluesman — JB

How would you feel if you have had a meaningful career in your chosen field, with some level of success and fame, but one of your greatest accomplishments was attributed to someone else? Robbed of due credit? For sure. However, what if the person being wrongly attributed was a giant in your field? Wouldn’t that be sort of a backhanded compliment?

Rock critic Dave Marsh, in his book The Heart of Rock & Soul, The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, says that just on the basis of their 1966 recording of Devil With A Blue Dress On / Good Golly Miss Molly, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels “were one of the greatest rock bands ever”. The Wheels had a string of Top 10 hits in the mid 1960s, including DWABDO, Jenny Take A Ride, Little Latin Lupe Lu, and *Sock It To Me Baby. Jim McCarty was the lead guitar player in the band. Ted Nugent, who grew up in the Detroit area says about McCarty, ” Remember the name Jimmy McCarty. He is as important as Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry and Les Paul…a god on guitar.”

Though the Detroit Wheels were almost the definition of mid 1960s rock n roll, their producer Bob Crewe (who passed away last fall) got the foolish notion to repackage Ryder, one of the original blue-eyed soul singers and an on-key shouter on par with Joe Cocker and Janis Joplin, as a Las Vegas lounge style solo act. Consequently, McCarty and the Wheels’ powerhouse drummer Johnny “Bee” Badanjek found themselves without a band.

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McCarty played for a while with the Siegal Schwall Blues Band, the successor to Paul Butterfield’s band in the Chicago music scene. While they never achieved the success of the Butterfield band, they did tour nationally. While on the west coast, McCarty met Buddy Miles who had been playing in Mike Bloomfield’s ill-fated rock/soul experiment The Electric Flag. Miles asked McCarty to play lead guitar in what became the Buddy Miles Express. Though the group only lasted for two albums, Jimi Hendrix produced some of their songs and the relationship between Hendrix and Miles led to the creation of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies. The Buddy Miles Express got significant airplay on FM radio at the time with Them Changes.

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Dig the groovy dancers shake to a lip synced Them Changes on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark cable show.

Reminiscing about Hendrix, McCarty said, “It was a little intimidating doing guitar overdubs with Hendrix in the studio but he was a “Mitch Ryder and Detroit Wheels” fan so it was cool.” While working on the west coast, McCarty would go on to play with Hendrix and other virtuoso players like guitarist John McLaughlin and bassist Jack Bruce.

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In 1969, Tim Bogart and Carmine Appice, formerly of Vanilla Fudge, planned to start a band with British guitarist Jeff Beck (and eventually did start up Beck, Bogart & Appice) but Beck was in a bad car wreck and was laid up for most of a year so Bogart and Appice asked McCarty to join them in the band Cactus. Creem magazine called Cactus, “The American Led Zeppelin.” Cactus never had a genuine hit, but they built up an impressive following. It should be noted that Creem magazine, like Dave Marsh, started in the Detroit area, so there might be some rooting for the home team in their high praise for area musicians, but Cactus was successful enough then that they can still do reunion tours now.

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McCarty left Cactus in 1971 (though he’s joined in the reunions) and the following year he and Badanjek started The Rockets, a popular Detroit area band that charted nationally twice in the later half of that decade with Turn Up The Radio and their cover of the Peter Green / Jeremy Spencer era Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well.

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Jim McCarty is the one playing the black Les Paul. A black LP Custom is still his axe of choice, currently playing a ’92. Paul Reed Smith is a fan and has gifted McCarty with some fine PRS guitars but he still prefers the Gibson.

When the Rockets’ run ended, wanting to return to his first musical love, the blues, and now with a family, McCarty settled down a bit, eventually leading the house band at a popular Detroit area blues club, Memphis Smoke, for eight years.

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Today McCarty is one of the elders of the Detroit rock and blues scene and his band, Mystery Train, regularly gigs around town, including hosting open jam nights at the Blue Goose Inn over on the east side in St Clair Shores. That’s where I met Jim.

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As you can probably guess, I’m a fan of good guitar playing and I think that Michael Bloomfield is in the pantheon with Jimi and a small handful of others. Bloomfield might have even been more influential than Hendrix. Also, how could I not love a guy who wrote and recorded a blues tune called I’m Glad I’m Jewish. Hebrew to the bone indeed. Not long after I met McCarty I was reading a biography of Bloomfield at the Gibson guitars website and it said that Dave Marsh, the same guy that called the Detroit Wheels one of the greatest rock bands ever, erroneously said that Bloomfield had done the guitar work on the Wheels’ big hits.

That claim was made in Marsh’s entry for Devil With A Blue Dress On in The Heart of Rock & Soul:

“On the basis of this record, the Detroit Wheels were one of the greatest rock bands ever. Unfortunately for that idea, much of the music wasn’t made by the Wheels. White blues legend Mike Bloomfield steps in with the psychedelic funk guitar (picking up where he left off on Highway 61 Revisited) and the organ riff that rockets the record along is played by his Electric Flag cohort, Barry Goldberg.”

After reading that, the next time I saw McCarty I asked him if Bloomfield ever played on any of the Wheels’ recordings. Apparently it’s a touchy subject with Jim. “I don’t know where the fuck Dave Marsh got that idea. Maybe because Barry Goldberg was at those sessions, but it doesn’t even sound like Bloomfield.” He’s got a point. I have most of Bloomfield’s recordings and while I’m sure that Mike could have played in the same style as McCarty if he wanted to, the lead guitar on the Detroit Wheels’ hits doesn’t sound like anything Bloomfield put on tape.

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The guitar solo in the recording establishes the segue in the medley from Devil With a Blue Dress to Good Golly Miss Molly. Producer Crewe and the band were trying to recreate the successful format of their first hit, Jenny Take A Ride, which was an up-tempo medley of the old standard, C.C. Rider, and Little Richard’s Jenny, Jenny. Devil With A Blue Dress On was originally recorded at a more relaxed tempo than the Wheels would use by one of Motown’s early performers, Shorty Long. It never charted nationally but was familiar to Detroit area fans of soul music. In the spoken word intro to Little Latin Lupe Lu, Ryder describes the process of “going through some old records” looking for songs they could record.

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Jim McCarty playing with Joe Bonamassa. Starting at about 4:30, you can hear McCarty define tasteful blues playing.

That segue, as mentioned, doesn’t sound like Mike Bloomfield’s playing. Bloomfield liked to play loudly but unlike many 1960s guitar gods, he didn’t like distortion and played with a clean tone. Mike’s tone came from his fingers and his Les Paul, not electronics effects. He could be funky, for sure, and his soundtrack to Roger Corman’s The Trip is an artifact of ’60s psychedelia but “Psychedelic funk” is not a term most guitar fans would associate with Bloomfield. The guitar break between the first two parts of the medley doesn’t use Hendrix level distortion but it’s definitely not a clean tone. I think I understand what Marsh means when he says psychedelic, comparing the guitar work on DWABDO to Bloomfield’s ringing Highway 61 riffs, but the guitar soloing in the rest of the Wheels’ song also has almost a rockabilly sense to it and I don’t recall Bloomfield ever playing in that style. Before joining the Butterfield band, Bloomfield played the twist club circuit in the midwest in the early 1960s, which is where he first met Johnny Winter. Before their breakout as a national hit, the Detroit Wheels played the same clubs and if there was an exchange of influence, it’s just as possible that McCarty’s playing influenced Bloomfield as the other way around.

The next time I saw him I told McCarty that, in a way, Marsh’s mistake was a compliment. After all, being confused with one of the greatest guitarists ever does say something about his ability as a player. McCarty wasn’t having any of that. He was still grousing, “I sent Marsh an email and told him to go fuck himself. That’s all me on the Wheels’ hits.”

Don’t just take McCarty’s word for it. In an interview conducted by Bloomfield Notes on Butterfield Blues Band keyboard player Mark Naftalin’s site, Barry Goldberg explains the confusion:

Bloomfield Notes: Dave Marsh wrote that Michael played guitar on “Devil With A Blue Dress” by Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels.

Barry Goldberg: He didn’t. I played on those sessions. There was an album afterwards, What Now My Love. Bob Crewe needed a guitar player and we brought in Michael for that. He’s on the songs recorded after “Devil With The Blue Dress” and “Sock It To Me.”

What Now My Love was supposed to be the vehicle to launch Mitch Ryder’s solo career, so there’s some irony in the fact that not only did that album mean an end to McCarty’s career as a Detroit Wheel, it would later lead to Mike Bloomfield getting credit for McCarty’s work with the Wheels.

I can understand McCarty’s anger over that. Ultimately a musician’s legacy is not how many recordings he sells but rather the notes he has played. Compared to most musicians, Jim has had a very notable career and it would be a shame if a writer’s error while trying to be clever (if McCarty was the guitar player than “much of the music wasn’t made by the Wheels” doesn’t quite work), diminished McCarty’s legacy.

*Sock It To Me Baby was successful enough that it was one of those 1960s songs that some Top 40 radio stations banned for “suggestive” lyrics.

5 Replies to “Backhanded Compliment: Jim McCarty, Not Mike Bloomfield, Played Those Detroit Wheels Hits”

  1. Graham

    Ronnie, This is an excellent article. Very well done!

    Just one big factual error – Jim McCarty was actually the drummer in the Yardbirds (and, later, Renaissance). When most people think of the Yardbirds, Paul Samwell-Smith immediately comes to mind, but, IMHO, McCarty was the one true genius in that band.

    • Ronnie Schreiber

      The Jim McCarty who was in the Yardbirds was someone else, though the one who was in the Detroit Wheels is also a competent drummer. Last night, a local musician who has played a lot with the Detroit Wheels Jim McCarty says that before the success of Devil With A Blue Dress, Jim wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a drummer or guitar player.

      • Graham

        Sorry, yes, it was a feeble attempt at humor! And everyone knows that Chris Dreja was the real genius in the Yardbirds. Interesting though that the Detroit Wheels Jim McCarty is a competent drummer as well. Had no idea. Always impressed by those who can do both well. Again, great job on the article.

  2. CGHill

    Why am I not surprised you have a copy of Marsh’s book? (I have about 900 of those 1001 tracks.)

    For the Born to Laugh at Tornadoes album (1983), Was (Not Was) brought in Mitch Ryder as a guest vocalist, and put an updated Detroit Wheels sound behind him. Still my favorite Was Bros. track.


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