Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Dennis Coffey: The original guitar hero

Dennis Coffery
Dennis Coffery Dennis Coffery Dennis Coffery Dennis Coffery and Mayer Hawthorne

Having, during his five-decade-plus career, been guitarist-of-choice for major artists as diverse as The Temptations, Funkadelic and Del Shannon, foundational Detroit guitar legend Dennis Coffey this month releases his new, fourteenth studio album titled simply ‘Dennis Coffey’.

Indeed, with Coffey having been a member of the original Motown ‘Funk Brothers’ studio backing-band and a key figure in bringing heavy wah-wah guitar to soul and funk during the late-Sixties, the roll-call of classic R&B landmarks featuring his work is immense - ranging from The Temptations’ ‘Cloud Nine’, ‘Ball Of Confusion’ and ‘Psychedelic Shack’; to Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ and Freda Payne’s ‘Band of Gold’.

Meanwhile, as a solo artist Dennis is best known for a series of rare groove classics released during the early-Seventies - including 1972’s million-selling instrumental breakbeat staple ‘Scorpio’ and the 1974 soundtrack to cult action-flick ‘Black Belt Jones’. While later in the decade, working alongside long-standing co-producer Mick Theodore, his Theo-Coff productions and prolific guitar-work ranged from raw funk to classic early disco - including CJ & Co’s ‘Devil’s Gun’ and The Sylvers’ ‘Boogie Fever’.

With Coffey having, since the Seventies, continued to record sporadically (including such further solo albums as 1989’s ‘Under The Moonlight’; 1990’s ‘Motor City Magic’; and 2006’s ‘Rise Of The Phoenix’), his aforementioned new set ‘Dennis Coffey’ has already been acclaimed as “a dense, fuzz-heavy haze of incendiary psychedelic soul”. Where - recalling the sentiments of his early-Seventies solo work - Dennis mixes new compositions like the funky ‘7th Galaxy’ and hypnotic ‘Space Traveller’ with a selection of songs upon which he first appeared while enlisting an illustrious guest-list of all-new interpretations along the way.

Thus Stones Throw’s new soul hero Mayer Hawthorne covers The Parliaments’ poignant midtempo swayer ‘All Your Goodies Are Gone’; Scottish international hitmaker Paolo Nutini delivers a passionate version of Rodriguez’s ‘Only Good For Conversation’; Milwaukee funk combo Kings Go Forth contribute the intense funker ‘Miss Millie’; Fanny Franklin of Hollywood funk outfit Orgone provides a pounding update of Wilson Pickett’s psycho-soul jam ‘Don’t Knock My Love’; plus Lisa Kekaula from California garage-soul band The Bellrays shines on the punchy 100 Proof Aged In Soul stomper ‘Somebody’s Been Sleeping’.

... Cue a highly affable and behatted Mr. Coffey (who was interestingly also featured in the 2002 film ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Motown’) joining ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis for mid-afternoon drinks at his St. Pancras hotel - to discuss such interesting topics as his highly-anticipated new album; his days on the early-Sixties Detroit music scene; his pioneering years as a Motown session-guitarist; plus his hitmaking early-Seventies solo career at Sussex Records.

PETE: What was the thinking behind your new, fourteenth studio album ‘Dennis Coffey’?

DENNIS: “Well, with me recently having signed with a new management team, a lot of the concept ideas actually came from them. So, while we did wanna start by going back to the time in my career when I made ‘Hair And Thangs’ (Dennis’ 1969 debut LP) and maybe ‘Scorpio’, at the same time we wanted to so something NEW, because you can’t recreate the past. Which is why we brought on board young musicians, young artists, a young production team… You know, all these people who could put a different spin on what we were doing while still remaining true to my roots. Which is why hopefully there’s some SURPRISES on the album. Because, even with the cover songs, while we do SOMEWHAT stay true to the originals, none of them are EXACLTY the same. You know, I didn’t tell the guys ‘Hear this record and play it just like this’… Instead I just let them do what THEY do best, because I just think that every musician needs to express THEMSELVES and wear THEIR hat. I don’t believe in telling folks exactly what to play, because then you’re missing out on what THEY can contribute.”

PETE: So how were the guest artists selected?

DENNIS: “Well, as I say, my management pretty much did the A&R for the whole thing, in that they selected the songs they wanted, the artists they wanted… You know, this was the first time I haven’t actually produced my own album. So, for example, Kings Go Forth added their horns in Milwaukee; Fanny Franklin did her vocals in LA... And it was management that basically handled all the personal interaction with all the artists. But the one thing that did occur to me, when I finally listened to the complete CD, was what a great job all these young artists are DOING! I was like ‘Man, this is a great album because of all the young people on it and the TALENT they have!’… You know, while some people are kind enough to say to me ‘Oh, the young people today don’t have the same stuff that you guys had with The Funk Brothers’, the fact is that they DO! They just have to be given a chance to DEVELOP it! Like with The Funk Brothers we were in the studio five days a week all day LONG! Now to me, if you take some of the young talent that’s around today and give them that kind of experience, I firmly believe THEY’d be in that category TOO! Because they really are very good players and singers.”

PETE: So can you fill me in on your early background?

DENNIS: “I was born and raised in a middle-class neighbourhood in the city of Detroit, and it was actually my mom’s side of the family that was very musical. You know, she could play piano and sing - and she’s since told me that I could literally name every song on the radio by the time I was two! Then her sister - who passed away a few years ago - could still sit down at 96 and play difficult piano pieces without making a mistake, while her OTHER sister was also excellent at reading music and playing pieces by people like Chopin and Brahms… And so I guess from that I ended up having this crazy passion for the guitar - to where I actually did my first recording session at 15! In fact, you can go on YouTube right now and there’s a record by a guy named Vic Gallon called ‘I’m Gone’, where you can actually hear a 15-year-old me playing two guitar solos! Then from there I got a job playing with a band in a teen club every Friday night, while on Saturdays I’d usually be playing at weddings... So by the time I was 16 I was already a working musician for at least two nights a week, and I guess it all just took off from there… And in fact Berry Gordy was the arranger on my very first single - a song called ‘Crazy Little Satellite’ that I recorded as one half of a duo, and that never actually got released!”

PETE: So how do you recall playing on the Detroit music scene of the early Sixties?

DENNIS: “Well, I’d been in the Army and was also working down in South Carolina. But then in 1961, after I was discharged, I came back to Detroit where a friend of mine - Marcus Terry, who later became the drummer in the band I also ended up joining, The Royaltones - told me he was playing at this place called The Wayne Show Bar. So I went along, auditioned, got the job - and from that point on I was working six nights a WEEK! You know, there was so much music happening in the city of Detroit back then that you could literally work seven nights a week in the same place for two years STRAIGHT! I mean, there must have been at least 25 bands working the teen clubs. And then, when they got older, they’d migrate and start working in the BARS. So it was just a tremendous time for anyone who wanted to make a good living playing music. Plus, on top of that, you could also go down the road and do RECORDING sessions! Because, since Berry Gordy started having those hits at Motown, anybody who wrote songs or wanted to be a producer or wanted to get a deal could just go to the labels and say ‘Give us some money so we can record some songs and have you RELEASE them!’… You know, the spin-off effect of the success of Berry Gordy really helped everybody else in the community too.”

PETE: Your movement into becoming one of Detroit’s prominent soul/funk guitarists began in the mid-Sixties with you working at the city’s Golden World Studios, owned by Ric Tic label-boss Ed Wingate…

DENNIS: “Yeah, the first time I got a call from Golden World they were like ‘We’re in the middle of a session over here and we want you to come over! The guitar player’s having trouble reading the charts - we haven’t got an arranger and we heard you can DO that!’... So I’m like ‘OK, but I’ve got my three-year-old with me and I’ll have to bring her along too!’... So I brought her to the session, stuck her in the corner, read the charts, they got the songs down the way they wanted… And from there on I was over there EVERY DAY! Which is when I first ran into Edwin (Starr). You know, I did songs with him over there like ‘Stop Her On Sight (S.O.S)’, plus songs like ‘Real Humdinger’ with J.J. Barnes… So yeah, working at Golden World was a lotta fun!”

PETE: So how did your move to Motown - and becoming part of their Funk Brothers studio band - come about in 1968?

DENNIS: “By the time I got to Motown they’d already bought out Golden World. And what actually happened was, one day I got a call from James Jamerson, The Funk Brothers’ bass-player. He introduced me on the phone to Hank Cosby. Who, in addition to being Stevie Wonder’s producer, was also the contractor who called all the musicians to come and play on the sessions. So Hank says ‘We’re gonna put together a band with Jamerson as leader, and we’re gonna set-up upstairs at Golden World studios. We’re gonna be available four nights a week from 7:00 to 9:30 for all the Motown producers to come over and experiment, come up with new ideas, and try to craft some hits before they incur the actual studio cost’... So I agreed to be part of that, various producers came up... And then, about three or four weeks later, Norman Whitfield - who I knew was The Temptations’ producer - came in... So anyway, Norman got this arrangement of a song called ‘Cloud Nine’. So we put it on the stand; I look at it; I happen to have this wah-wah pedal in my kit that makes the ‘wah-wah’ sound on the guitar; I play the introduction to ‘Cloud Nine’ on the pedal... And straightway Norman was like ‘That’s IT! That’s what I’m LOOKING for!’… So within two weeks I’m walking into the Motown studios with The Funk Brothers - and from that day on, Norman had me in the EVERY DAY!... And I’ve been told since that the look on The Funk Brothers’ faces at Motown when I first started playing that wah-wah pedal was somethin’ ELSE!”

PETE: So would you say that you and Norman Whitfield were jointly the two men primarily responsible for Motown Records’ move into the “psychedelic soul” era in the late-Sixties/early-Seventies - via classic singles like The Temptations’ ‘Cloud Nine’ and Ball Of Confusion’, and Edwin Starr’s protest anthem ‘War’?

DENNIS: “Well, back in ‘67/’68, while Motown was still writing the love songs, due to musicians like Hendrix and Sly Stone the musical environment was CHANGING. You had the protest songs, the social commentary songs, the psychedelic music... And, while Norman had already figured that out and wanted to GET there, he didn’t know HOW - until he heard me PLAYING! You know, because I was doing very experimental stuff on the guitar while at the same time playing in the black clubs, he knew I was the one who could help him get to his VISION. Because, while I could do the special effects, I could also do straight-ahead FUNK. Which was exactly what he was LOOKING for... So yeah, in that way Norman did become my favourite producer to work with at Motown. Because he was the one who gave me a chance to also express my OWN style and be creative in my own RIGHT! You know, while he was achieving his vision and growing as a producer and writer, I was growing as a GUITAR player. So it was definitely a situation that worked out very well for BOTH of us.”

PETE: The early-Seventies of course also saw your own recording career taking off, releasing five Dennis Coffey & The Detroit Guitar Band albums for Sussex Records. Which, in 1972, spawned the million-selling US Top 10 single ‘Scorpio’ (which in turn found you becoming the first white artist to perform on Don Cornelius’ legendary US black music TV show ‘Soul Train’)…

DENNIS: “Well, my first real album was ‘Hair And Thangs’ in 1969. Then from there (co-producer) Mike Theodore and I started working together. And, though the label we released ‘Hair And Thangs’ on (MGM subsidiary Maverick) didn’t survive., to have a hit like Scorpio’ off the very next album we did together (1971’s ‘Evolution’ on Sussex), was very exciting! And then - though ‘Scorpio’ was unquestionably the biggest - from there we also had ‘Taurus’, ‘Ride Sally Ride’ - all hits for me as a solo artist… And the ‘Soul Train’ thing came about because I’d first met Don Cornelius when he was a DJ in Chicago while I was playing an R&B show there. So, when ‘Scorpio’ took off, I got this call from him and I ended up taking my whole band on ‘Soul Train’! You know, we weren’t lip-synching - the whole band was totally live - and the place was PACKED! We were cranking ‘Scorpio’ up, people were yelling… Then after the show somebody on Don’s staff told us that, when the kids found out I was gonna appear, they actually had 25% more people turn up than could fit in that studio!”

PETE: Many of your Seventies recordings for Sussex Records (and, later, Westbound Records) have since become heavily sampled by today’s hip hop generation. What are your views there?

DENNIS: “Well, the first time I heard a sample of me was in 1985 - when I was doing an album and I asked the engineer ‘Do you have some examples of what the kids are doing nowadays?’… So he puts on this record by Public Enemy and I hear me playing with them, and I’m like ‘I don’t remember getting paid for that session!’! So then I speak to my middle son bout it, and he’s like ‘Dad, ALL these people are sampling you’!... So he gives me a collection of 20 cassettes of all the people who were sampling me. And from there I call up (Sussex Records’ president) Clarence Avant and say ‘Clarence, you own the copyright on these records, and these samples COME from these records. So we need to DO something about this’... I mean, at the time Clarence was based in New York as chairman of the board for Motown. So he says ‘I’m gonna call the other label presidents and we’re gonna try and get everybody some money. The last thing we wanna do is have everybody suing everybody else, because things really won’t work OUT that way’… So from then on I started getting paid for the samples... And I guess that what sampling did overall for my career was to let all the hip hoppers know who I AM! Which in turn just opened up a whole new recognition which has enabled me to be doing what I’m doing NOW… So yeah, my view is that it’s definitely been a good thing!”

The album ‘Dennis Coffey’ is out now through Strut

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