FIVE DECADES OF FUNK (AND COUNTING) Dennis Coffey

The Motown producer/guitarist was
– and remains – relevant, revolutionary, and massively influential.

 

BY CARL
HANNI

 

Fact one: You’ve heard Dennis Coffey,
whether you know it or not.

 

Anyone
who’s been listening to popular music in the last fifty years has heard Dennis
Coffey, whether they are hip to him by name or not. He’s one of a vast number
of players, songwriters, arrangers, producers, etc. who have been making and
shaping music largely behind the scenes, while their contributions are often
equal to those who achieve pop-star, household name status. And as anyone who
follows pop music closely knows, it’s often in the shadows and out of the
spotlight that a lot of the most relevant, revolutionary and influential work
gets done. 

 

Working
out of Detroit,
Coffey’s considerable career as a go-to guitar player and producer only
partially fits that scenario, though. While he spent a good portion of his
career either working in the studio or backing up others, he has also spent
quality time directly in the spotlight. Back in the early 1970s he scored huge
hits with his psychedelic funk instrumental classics “Scorpio” (check video
clip, below) and its follow-up “Taurus,” putting him out as a frontman on Soul Train, American Bandstand and other
pop culture programs of that era. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s he and his
then-partner Mike Theodore teamed up as Theo-Coff Productions, producing hits
for Edwin Starr, J.J. Barnes, Darrell Banks and many more act. Coffey also had
considerable success as a producer for the hits “Boogie Fever” by The Sylvers
(1975), “Nice To Be With You” (1972) by Gallery and scoring the soundtrack for
the cultish Black Belt Jones in 1974. In 1972 he produced a true cult
classic, Cold Fact by Detroit’s
Rodriguez (re-released to great acclaim a few years back by Light In The Attic
Records). Coffey also released a string of solo records dating back to the
early ‘70s.

 

Fact two: Dennis Coffey pretty much
invented, and definitely perfected, psychedelic soul guitar playing. 

 

Although
Coffey’s work as a frontman/guitar ace and producer is his most high profile
work in the public eye, it’s his pioneering work as a studio guitar player that
might most likely be remembered fifty years from now. Starting as a teenager in
Detroit in the early 1960s, Coffey was already playing in bands in high school,
and quickly moved up to recording and working in touring bands before doing a
stint in the Army. He resumed playing after his return, eventually ending up
touring and recording with Del Shannon, The Floaters, The Dramatics, Jerry
Butler, the pre-Parliament/Funkadelic combo The Parliaments, early Rare Earth
and many others. In the late ‘60s he joined the Motown Records house band the Funk
Brothers and started recording a series of ground breaking records that, under
the direction of visionary producer Norman Whitfield, became era and genre
defining classics: “War” and “Ball of Confusion” by Edwin Starr (as well as The
Temptations’ versions), “Cloud Nine” and “Psychedelic Shack” by The Temptations
and more. The wah-wahed, fuzzed out, deeply impressive guitar on these songs?
That’s Dennis Coffey. Around this time he also released the first of eleven
solo records, Hair And Thangs

 

Anyone
who has heard those classic songs can recognize them for what they are: songs
that defined an era, an exciting time when music both reflected and shaped the
times, and songs like “Ball of Confusion” and “War” served a dual purpose as
both entertainment and a rallying cry for social change. Nothing like that
(outside of some hip-hop, London Calling and some more politically savvy punk) has really come quite so close to the
pulse of the times since then, although we clearly need a similar kind of
social/political connection now as much as we did back then. And Coffey’s
guitar playing on those tracks did more than simply lend them propulsion and
definition: it was the very sound itself, a dominant and memorable
characteristic of some of the most important music of the period. In short,
Dennis Coffey helped define the times. 

 

That’s pretty
heady stuff for a kid who started out playing country and rockabilly at
thirteen.

 

But Coffey
was lucky enough to live in Detroit, a city that (along with Memphis) arguably
produced as much classic music in the U.S. in the 1960s and early ‘70s as any
other, with no disrespect intended towards Chicago blues, New Orleans soul and
funk, San Francisco psychedelia or LA rock and country rock. It’s hardly
surprising that hard/acid rock meshed with soul in Detroit during this time, when you consider
that this was the same area code(s) that also kick-started a distorted,
over-driven guitar revolution via The Stooges and MC5. Coffey’s proximity to
some of the most vital music of the era put him at the perfect spot to make the
most of his talents; none of which would have mattered if his talents weren’t
as considerable as they indeed are. Along the way he penned and published a
book about it all, Guitars, Bars and
Motown Superstars
(2004, University
of Michigan Press). 

 

Fact three: Denny Coffey has a brand new CD
just out on Strut Records, Dennis Coffey.

 

The fine
folks at Strut are behind Coffey’s first solo record in close to two decades,
the self-titled Dennis Coffey. Over eleven tracks split between
instrumentals and vocal numbers with guest vocalists (Coffey doesn’t sing), the
guitarist sounds amazingly vital and tuned into the times. The new CD features
several of his patented psychedelic space rock instrumentals, like “7th
Galaxy,” “Plutonius” and “Space Traveller,” as well as a cohesive collection of
cover songs featuring some well chosen talent. Fanny Franklin of Orgone shows
up on a hard-charging version of Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Knock My Love,” Mick
Collins of The Dirtbombs and Rachel Nagy of Detroit Cobras totally own
Funkadelic’s “I Bet You” and Lisa Kekaula of The BellRays shines on the
soul-rocking “Somebody’s Been Sleeping.” Mayer Hawthorne, Paolo Nutini and
Kings Go Forth also show up and deliver. The tracks switch out between
soul-tinged rock, interstellar funk and hard-core psych, and Coffey sounds
fired up and tightly focused, his guitar playing as muscular and inventive as
ever. 

 

I recently
saw Dennis Coffey play two shows at SXSW, and he basically ruled. [Boy howdy to that,  says the BLURT editor. Go here for our SXSW
report, including our Coffey comments.
] One was a large outdoor show to a
huge, sweaty crowd; the other to a smaller but no less enthused club crowd. He
was joined for a few numbers at both shows by the NY based soul singer Kendra Morris, who added considerable sass and sex appeal to Coffey’s touring band.
Looking patriarchal and dressed head to toe in black, he projected a Buddah-in-black
sense of calm and cool. Not hipster, self-conscious/self mythologizing cool,
but actual, modest cool as it used to be lived and breathed by the likes of
Marvin Gaye and Muddy Waters. Those cats didn’t act cool, they WERE cool, and
Coffey has had a lifetime to absorb the glow of dozens of like-minded,
legendary individuals. Dennis Coffey can count himself into their
company. 

 

He
recently held forth for BLURT on things new and old.

 

***

 

BLURT: You started playing guitar
and recording while you were in high school. Did you feel back then that this
was going to be your life’s work? Did you envision being a professional
musician at that young age?

 DENNIS
COFFEY: No, at least not at first. My first session was when I was 15…it was
just an isolated event and I didn’t get paid. A year later, though, I
auditioned for a band called The Pyramids. They were a working band, doing
dances, etc. At the time I was making $15/week as a cashier at a grocery store.
Then I found out I passed the audition with The Pyramids and I could make twice
that only playing a couple of nights per week. From that point, I thought I
could make a living at it.

 

How did you first meet Motown’s Berry Gordy?

 I
met Berry
when I was very young. I was 16 and a partner of mine and I went to
Fortune Records and did a demo record called “Crazy Little
Satellite.” Devora Brown, one of the owners of Fortune, heard it and
told Jackie Wilson’s manager Nat Tarnopol about it…he heard it and decided he
wanted to sign us to a record contract. So, once we did that, he brought
us over to this guy’s house who was an arranger. That guy was Berry
Gordy. We ended up doing the session at United Sound with Berry and Nat there with
us.

 

Much has been made about the way
in which the recording studios in Memphis were
integrated in Memphis,
long before the rest of the city was in the 1960s. What was it like Detroit during the 1960s?
Were the studios there pretty much integrated as well? Did you ever encounter
any issues of being a white player in a largely black scene?

 Never encountered issues like
that. Like Memphis, Detroit’s studios were integrated in the ‘60s. There
were quite a few white players in the mix with the various labels and studios
in Detroit at
that time…myself, Bob Babbitt, Joe Messina, etc. We all worked a ton of
sessions with players white and black and never thought much about it. Up
here at least, musicians were just interested in who could play. It was
the same attitude at Motown. Berry’s
operation seemed to favor getting the best person to do a particular job,
without much concern for race.

 

In addition to being an
internationally known home for soul, R&B, blues and some jazz, Detroit in
the late 60s and early 70s was a hotbed of raw rock-n-roll from The Stooges,
MC5, Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger, etc. Did you know all those other acts? Did you
play with or jam with any of them?

 I
knew some of them a bit. Myself, Melvin Davis and Lyman Woodard opened
once for the MC5 at the Grande Ballroom. That was during our psychedelic
period. We opened with a cover of “A Day in the Life” done our
way and the crowd loved it.

 

How did you first encounter some
of the guitar effects technology like the Fuzz Box that you became known for?

 The
first time I ever got that fuzz sound was sort of by accident, when I was with
the Royaltones. A tube in the amp came loose and the sound was all fuzzed
out and I thought it sounded great but the producer didn’t agree and took all
of that out. He thought it was a mistake.

         Later, a friend of mine from way back
named Joe Podorsek owned a store called Capitol Music. Joe used to call me
when he got anything new and interesting in, and that way I got to try a lot of
new effects. After that, when I got with Norman Whitfield, I was really
able to make use of that kind of thing and experiment with it.

 

Were Gordy and the folks at Motown
initially resistant to introducing new, harder and rougher sounds you were
bringing them into the smooth Motown Sound?

 I
don’t know for sure. I do know that Norman Whitfield was the guy within Motown
who drove that move into the rougher sound. He was the visionary. He
was listening to a lot of new artists at that time, like Sly Stone, and he
could see which way music was heading and he wanted the artists he worked with
to be a part of that. There probably was some resistance to that change,
but Norman was
a very forceful, dynamic personality.

 

Did you have the feeling at the
time that you were recording them that some of the topical classics that you
were playing on like “War” and “Ball of Confusion” were going to be viewed as
some of the quintessential music of the era? Did you feel like these songs were
part of a social movement, and not just “entertainment?”

 Absolutely we had that feeling. Norman was intentionally
going in that direction. He was my favorite producer to work with because he
let me experiment. I was the guy he relied on for that “new”
sound.  Also, it definitely helped me having played on those songs because
many of them were hits and that helped raise my profile.

 

You’ve obviously been widely
sampled by producers and DJs in the last couple of decades. Have you followed
hip hop over the years, both the technology involved and the music itself? Are
you interested in sampling and other digital technology?

 I’m
aware of the sampling of course. My son, who was a huge hip hop fan,
played a role in laying it all out for me, how often my stuff had been sampled,
who by, etc. The very first one I remember being aware of was Public Enemy
sampling “Get it On.” Clarence Avant played a big role in
making sure that I got compensated for a lot of that. I look at it as a
positive because it’s not really all that different than playing a session…
if the song is a hit, you gain visibility and credibility from having had a
part in it.

 

There’s been a huge upswing in the
next generation of soul and R&B artists getting their due in the last
decade or so, with labels like Daptone, Truth & Soul, Stones Throw and more
putting out lots of records and putting bands on the road. What’s your take on
the health and well being of soul music today? How closely do you follow it?

 I’ve
been more aware of it recently, as we were making this record. I worked
with and have played with several of the younger bands playing soul and
funk. I see a lot of young musicians that have gone back and listened to
the original stuff because it’s real to them. The players start jamming on
that music and getting funky, and it sounds right to them and to the audiences
they’re attracting. Funk seems to be getting rediscovered by young players
and fans from what I can tell and it reminds me a bit of when blues went
through that, when a younger generation went back to the original
music because it seemed better to them than a lot of what was going on
around them at that time. 

        I
just played a show with the band who’s been backing me, called Will Sessions,
here in Detroit
at a place called Cliff Bell’s. The place was packed for a night of raw
funk and the crowd really ran the gamut in age. There were older people
who remembered it all from the first time around, but there were also a lot of
younger folks in the audience, so I do think the music is connecting with these
people who are hearing it fresh.

 

Anything you’d like to say about
your new album on Strut Records, Dennis Coffey? Did this new one
come together over a long period, or pretty much all at once?

It came
together over about a year. My producer and my management team and I all
decided that what made sense was to make a record that went back to my roots,
but made it relevant to today by collaborating with some of the younger
players I was just talking about. I think we did that very successfully…
making a record that sounds classic but also sounds modern and fresh at the
same time.

 

What’s next for you?

 Touring…playing
for the people everywhere I can. We have a nice run of dates coming up in
June, capped off by an appearance at the Bonnaroo festival, then we go over to
Europe for a couple of weeks. We look to be pretty active through the end
of the year.  

 

 

Tour dates for Coffey – including
the recently added Bonnaroo gig – can be viewed at his official website.

 



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