Q&A with Guitarist Dennis Coffey: Still Burnin’


Dennis Coffey has a new album of previously unreleased material, recorded with a trio in 1968.

(Photo: ©Doug Coombe)

In the 1960s Detroit established itself as a music industry hotbed for soul and r&b, with a thriving record label and recording studio scene. In addition to Motown, there were lesser-known labels, such as Golden World, Ric-Tic, Kelmac and Revilot.

One of the leading “studio cats” that was on the ground floor of all this frenetic activity was guitarist/producer Dennis Coffey. He was a member of the famous Funk Brothers collective of musicians at the Motown label (as chronicled in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown), and he worked for other labels, too.

From tracks by The Reflections to hit singles by The Temptations, The Supremes and Freda Payne, as well as Edwin Starr’s chart-topper “War,” Coffey became one of the busiest “unsung” players in the business.

He also released his own million-selling instrumental single “Scorpio” in 1971, on the Sussex label. The song got a second life decades later because it has been sampled frequently in hip-hop tracks, including Young M.C.’s 1989 smash hit “Bust A Move.”

Coffey is about to win a new legion of fans, thanks to the live album Hot Coffey In The D: Burnin’ At Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, which will be released on Jan. 13 by Resonance.

Recorded with professional equipment, this previously unreleased trio set from 1968 —featuring fellow Motor City stalwarts Lyman Woodard on Hammond B3 organ and Melvin Davis on drums—crackles with energy and showcases Coffey’s amazing chops. (The album serves as a nice companion piece to Fuel 2000’s compilation Absolutely The Best Of Dennis Coffey because none of its seven songs overlap with the 20 tracks on that disc.)

On Hot Coffey In The D, the trio offers creative arrangements of hits like “The Look Of Love” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” as well as a couple of original tunes, “Fuzz” and “The Big D.” The mind-blowing music, often improvised, incorporates elements of soul, funk, rock and jazz, including a killer reading of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.”

Coffey, 76, remains active on the Detroit scene. His quartet plays every Tuesday night at the Northern Lights Lounge. DownBeat recently had the pleasure to sit down with Coffey to discuss the live album and his career.

Tell us about the live music scene in Detroit in the ’60s and early ’70s.

It was a great time for music in the city. I always contend that Detroit audiences are some of the best audiences in the world. And without that you don’t have this fertile ground for music to develop. The only way musicians can learn how to play is that they have to get in front of people. You’ve got to bounce it off the people because you’re really making music to communicate. If you’re not communicating with the people, then you might as well sit in your basement and play.

You can’t just be a studio player and expect to really connect?

Well, you can do that. But like when I was with the Funk Brothers, we were playing clubs at night and recording at Motown during the day. So, we were bouncing ideas off each other at places like the Frolic Show Bar.

Then Melvin and Lyman and I got our gig at Morey Baker’s, where this recording took place. So playing in front of live audiences informed stylistically what we would be doing in the studio and so forth.

Talk a bit about working with Lyman Woodard and Melvin Davis on this album.

Every time we played a song, it would organically develop. All we did was the melody and then wherever we’d go with the solos would always be different. And I’m still like that now. When I do a gig, quite often I have no idea what the solos are gonna be like beforehand.

On this new live album you’re playing pop hits, originals, gospel tunes and jazz tunes. This set kind of epitomizes what became known as “fusion” music.

How it started was Don Davis was playing guitar with Lyman Woodard and George McGregor at the Frolic Show Bar. And I used to use Don on sessions playing guitar. Don called me one day to come down and sit in on their gig. I had quit working in Top 40 bands because I was playing on and producing enough sessions to be able to do that.

I was listening to Don and this group playing instrumental music for people sitting down—who really wanted to listen. So, Don was leaving the band to do production in the studios and Lyman offered me the gig that same night. I accepted it and recognized this as an opportunity to really grow instrumentally as a player, blending jazz and funk with the psychedelic sounds of folks like Hendrix and Clapton.

My good friend Joe Podorsek owned a music store in Detroit. He introduced me to all these new guitar effects at the time, like wah-wah pedals and fuzz tones. I started using all these things on records as well as in the clubs. It was something new and, as a session guy, you’re always looking for new sounds. And that’s the way I still am today.

My understanding is you had these tapes from the Morey Baker’s sessions and you shared them with journalist Kevin Goins. And he, in turn, put you in touch with Resonance Records producer/executive Zev Feldman. Is that right?

Yes, and I have seven four track tapes from these live sessions, with enough material for another CD or more.

Finally, is it true you were one of the first white artists to appear on the TV show Soul Train, when you had a hit with “Scorpio”?

I was the first! I remember the first time I played that show, we did it live. The song was already a major hit. And when the kids found out we were gonna be on, the show’s producers jammed in about 25 percent more people than the studio could handle. I did American Bandstand and The Mike Douglas Show, too, but Soul Train was one of the best.

To see a 14-minute video on the making of Hot Coffey In The D, check out this video that Resonance Records has posted. For more info on the album, visit the Resonance website. Fans might also want to check out Coffey’s website. DB

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