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Motown veteran Dennis Coffey stakes a claim with new album
Dennis Coffey is hoping that at 70, and with 56 years in the music business, he can finally take the “un” out of his unsung hero status.
The Detroit-born guitarist’s name is best-known to aficionados who have dug deep enough to find out he’s responsible for the wah-wah introduction to the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” or the pure, sweet guitar figure at the start of “Just My Imagination” — just a couple of credits in a session career at Motown, Invictus and other iconic labels and for artists such as Quincy Jones, Ringo Starr, Tom Jones and Barbra Streisand. Or they might know him from “Scorpio,” the Top 10, gold-certified 1971 instrumental hit that made Coffey the first white artist to perform on TV’s “Soul Train.”
These days, however, the goal is to get Coffey props for his past via a fresh present — a new album, “Dennis Coffey,” that comes out Tuesday on London-based Strut Records and showcases playing that’s as fleet-fingered and accomplished as any of the rock and funk worlds’ more readily recognized six-stringers. Guest singers such as Paolo Nutini, Lisa Kekaula of the Bellrays and fellow Michiganders Mayer Hawthorne, Mick Collins (the Gories, the Dirtbombs) and the Detroit Cobras’ Rachel Nagy will help bring some people to the party, but once they’re in Coffey will certainly keep them there with the 11-track album’s combination of originals and new versions of songs from his well-credentialed past.
“Believe it or not, this was always my goal,” Coffey says of succeeding as an artist in his own right. “It’s pretty popular knowledge that Motown didn’t put the names of the musicians on their albums. What I had was ‘Scorpio,’ so I had a year of touring and getting out there and doing ‘The Mike Douglas Show’ and ‘American Bandstand’ and ‘Soul Train’ twice. I had at least gotten out of the crowd and gotten some recognition through my own albums.
“What people keep saying to me, when they read my book (“Guitars, Bars, and Motown Superstars” in 2004) or find out another way, is, ‘We had no idea you played on all these hits. We knew you played on some stuff at Motown, but not all this!’ Hopefully we can make that more common knowledge.”
That certainly seems to be happening. Since returning to music full-time in 2006 after nearly 20 years in the auto manufacturing industry, the thrice-married Coffey -- a father of five and grandfather of six who resides in Farmington -- has been earning plaudits such as a Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 2008 and a Heroes & Legends Achievement in Music honor the following year, as well as regular bookings at the respected Ponderosa Stomp festivals. He received a Distinguished Achievement Award at this month’s Detroit Music Awards, and the New York Times wrote up “Dennis Coffey” as part of its Sunday “Playlist” recommendations.
And in addition to his album, Coffey also plays on upcoming releases by Hawthorne and Booker T. Jones.
“Dennis might be more popular now than he was in his heyday,” notes “Dennis Coffey” producer Al Sutton, who owns Rust Belt Studios in Royal Oak and is Kid Rock’s chief recording engineer. “He’s being focused on more and there’s a resurgence of young kids who are hearing him, as opposed to back in the day when he was playing...on other people’s records. I’d like to think more people are hip to him than they were back then.”
And Coffey is hoping that having Sutton and a dedicated management team -- Chris Peters and Chris Fuller of Detroit’s Bad Data Management -- will make a difference this time out.
“I know how to make records. I’ve been doing that all my life,” Coffey says. “The challenging part is what do you do after you record the music? What’s the plan? These guys sat down with me and said, ‘Here’s a two-page plan of what we’re gonna do with your career and recording the record and after the record’s done.’
“So the team’s working hard, and everything’s coming together. I appreciate that my team presented me with a plan, and the plan is being implemented.”
Music became Coffey’s plan from a young age. He started playing guitar at age 13, after visiting cousins who lived in the Upper Peninsula’s Copper City and also played. “They were playing acoustic guitars and singing country-western songs,” he recalls. “They showed me a few chords and got me started.
“And when I came back (to Detroit) I took some lessons, but at the end of the day rock ‘n’ roll was just beginning and none of the teachers know how to play that stuff, so you really had to jsut buy the records and spend time learning them, which could be tedious.
Coffey learned enough to cut his first record -- backing singer Vic Gallon on “I’m Gone” -- in 1955, when he was 15 years old and a sophomore at Mackenzie High School. With the Royaltones Coffey both recorded and backed other artists, Del Shannon, and through other work he developed enough of a reputation in Detroit that it wasn’t long before Motown came calling to make Coffey part of its Funk Brothers corral.
“One day I got a phone call from (bass player) James Jamerson at Motown, and he introduced me to Hank Crosby,” who was Stevie Wonder’s producer and a contractor for studio musicians. Motown had purchased Golden World Studios, where Coffey was a regular, and began using it as a workshop for producers and songwriters “to experiment and take more time to develop ideas” they had for their songs before cutting them in Hitsville’s Studio A.
After nearly a month there, Norman Whitfield brought an arrangement for a new song he had called “Cloud Nine” to the musicians. “I had this wah-wah pedal in my kit,” Coffey says, “so I used that on the introduction figure to ‘Cloud Nine,’ and Norman said, ‘That’s what I’m looking for.’ So within two weeks I was at Hitsville, playing with the Funk Brothers and doing ‘Cloud Nine,’ and then I just never left.”
With an appetite for invention and new technology, Coffey became a favorite of Whitfield’s and a key ingredient in modernizing Motown’s sound during the late 60s. “Every time I’d come in, I’d have this bag of tricks, special effects, and (Whitfield) would say, ‘What do you have today?’,” Coffey remembers. He introduced fuzztone and echoplex on the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack,” for instance, and also recorded on songs by the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the Spinners, and on the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” But because he was not contractually bound to Motown like the other Funk Brothers, Coffey was able to work with artists on other labels, including George Clinton and the Parliaments (“I Wanna Testify”), Freda Payne (“Band of Gold”), Wilson Pickett and Funkadelic.
He began his solo career with “Hair and Thangs” in 1968, signing with Sussex Records before Motown expressed interest. That first album featured his instrumental take on the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” but it was 1970’s “Evolution” and “Scorpio” -- recorded with a band of fellow Funk Brothers -- that really put Coffey on the map in his own right.
“ ‘Scorpio’ was out a year and didn’t do anything,” Coffey says of the song that peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard pop singles chart. “We had already started on the (1971 album) ‘Goin’ For Myself’ when the national promo guy for Sussex (Records) called me and said, ‘Man, I was in the dance clubs in New York, and they are pounding ‘Scorpio’ to death, so we’re going to reservice it and put it out as a single. Just hold up on that new album you’re working on until we can get this sorted out.’
“And the first time I played in New York, I was playing in Brooklyn or some place, it was a hotel with a big ballroom, and we went into ‘Scorpio’ as our finale and I looked up and there were 2,000 people in a conga line, coming toward the bandstand.”
Coffey also remembers the moment the single went gold, too.
“I took my dad to New York with me,” he says, “and we were in the Sussex office. They said, ‘You’re real close to having a million-seller. We could probably call one distributor and see if they’ve got another order and you’ll have a gold record.’ I said sure, so they called this one distributor and they ordered another 50 records and I had my gold record. It was amazing.”
TRAVELS AND CHANGES
Coffey and production partner Mike Theodore moved to Los Angeles with the Motown apparatus in 1973, continuing to work with the label and play sessions for other artists and rack up more experiences -- like having Barbra Streisand greet him and other members of a 60-piece orchestra for a buffet meal before they recorded. But even though he was busy, doing 18 sessions a week, he found Los Angeles “too crowded for me” and returned to Detroit three years later, briefly recording for the Westbound Records label and then trying his luck in New York before settling back home for good in 1982.
But by 1985, Coffey needed work outside of music and began working at General Motors’ Mound Road transmission plant. Within two years he was one of the factory’s trainers, and after getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Instructional Technology, he became an in-demand consultant for all three Detroit auto companies, finishing up with Ford, who sent him to Germany and Mexico on assignments.
The music remained, however. Coffey would practice and play out on weekends, and he continued to record. “I’d be working an assembly line and they’d be playing my new album on the radio,” he recalls. Leaving that business in 2006, however, he returned to music full-time, playing jazz at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge but quickly learning that “my fan base wanted to hear the funk.” So he headed back in that direction, starting a weekly gig at the Northern Lights Lounge in Detroit’s New Center area, which began attracting young fans -- some of whom knew “Scorpio” from its frequent sampling on hip-hop songs by LL Cool J, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Public Enemy and others.
“Dennis Coffey” producer Sutton, meanwhile, had been a fan since the early 90s and was surprised to learn the guitarist was still living and working in the metro area. “Dennis called me one day and said ‘I heard you’re looking for me,’ and I was totally taken aback,” Sutton remembers. Coffey made himself available for session work, but it wasn’t long before Sutton broached the idea of making a new album.
“He kind of hemmed and hawed for about a year,” Sutton says. “He was really reluctant. I think he might feel like he’s been burned by the industry, maybe. It finally got going about a year ago.”
The 11-track “Dennis Coffey” is culled from a stash of nearly 40 original instrumentals Coffey had written -- including “Miss Millie” for his current wife (“I named a song after one of my previous wives...so fair is fair,” he says with a laugh) -- plus, at the suggestion of the record company, covers of songs Coffey previously played on, with guest singers. The latter include Cold Fact’s “Only Good For Conversation” with Nutini, 100 Proof (Aged in Soul)’s “Somebody’s Been Sleeping in My Bed” with Kekaula and Funkadelic’s “I Bet You” with Collins and Nagy. Most of their performances were recorded separately, while Hawthorne was in town for his version of the Parliaments’ “All Your Goodies Are Gone.”
“When I first heard ‘Scorpio’ I thought, ‘How can I make something that funky?’ “ Hawthorne says. “To be able to work with Dennis was such a thrill...a privilege. He’s so authentic.”
“Dennis Coffey” will put Coffey back on the road come June, with a lineup of dates that includes New York and Los Angeles as well as the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee. It’s a new start at a late juncture, but Coffey is nothing but invigorated.
“I think it keeps you alive,” he says. “When I played with Les Paul he was 93, and I saw (Andres) Segovia do a concert at Music Hall or something, and he was 92 and playing by himself on stage for the whole concert. B.B. King’s still out there.
“I’ll tell you what; my mom played piano and stuff...into her 80s. And I had an aunt, her sister, who passed away at 97, and at 96 she would sit down at the piano and play these classical pieces with no mistakes at all. So I think for me, as long as I’m able, I’m gonna keep at it and stay out there, playing.”
A DENNIS COFFEY PRIMER
A dozen essential tracks from Dennis Coffey's past:
"(I Wanna) Testify," the Parliaments (1967)
"Cloud Nine," the Temptations (1968)
"It's Your Thing," Dennis Coffey (1968)
"Ball of Confusion (That's What the World is Today)," the Temptations (1970)
"Give Me Just a Little More Time," Chairmen of the Board (1970)
"War," Edwin Starr (1970)
"We Can Work It Out," Stevie Wonder (1970)
"Scorpio," Dennis Coffey (1970)
"Smiling Faces Sometimes," the Undisputed Truth (1971)
"Don't Knock My Love," Wilson Pickett (1971)
"Body Heat," Quincy Jones (1974)
"I Want You," Marvin Gaye" (1976)
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