Dennis Coffey

Michaelangelo Matos

By Michaelangelo Matos

on 05.02.11 in Interviews

A guitar-slinger of the first order, Detroit-area native Dennis Coffey was the session ace whose wah-wah-laden style helped ignite Motown’s late ’60s. Famously, he played through that namesake pedal on the session Norman Whitfield produced for the Temptations ‘”Cloud Nine,” a record that announced the label’s continuing commitment to adjusting to R&B’s ever-shifting sonic proclivities. (That Coffey was a white man employed by America’s largest black business had its own kinds of historical charms beyond the music.) Before that, he’d been a teenage country picker and rock and roller who found his way to the studios through the city’s active ’60s club scene.

Coffey would eventually make his way to a solo career, including several cuts — “Scorpio,” “Son of Scorpio,” “Theme from ‘Black Belt Jones’” and more — that became big hits with the Bronx DJs who created hip-hop. “Scorpio” in particular is a gold mine for sample-spotters: Moby, Mos Def, Fugees, Young MC, Geto Boys, LL Cool J and Public Enemy are just a few of the artists who’ve mined it over the years.

Coffey’s session work (both as musician for hire, oftentimes for Motown well into the ’70s, and as a staff producer for Sussex Records, from 1969-75) kept him busy beyond his own career, and he’s become a respected funk elder. Now, he’s recorded a comeback album. Dennis Coffey is pretty much the album you expect it to be: some dusted-off oldies from the veteran artist’s past meets a few new ones, plus lots of younger guest stars to draw extra cool-old-guy points among young audiences. But the music often works, particularly on a revamped “All Your Goodies Are Gone,” which Coffey played on when the Parliaments, then a harmony group modeled on the Temptations, cut it for Detroit’s Revilot. Parliament re-cut it for 1974′s fabulous Up for the Down Stroke, and now Coffey’s slinky new embellishment gives it a third worthwhile life.

eMusic’s Michaelangelo Matos spoke with Coffey over the phone from his house in Dearborn, near Detroit.

What was the first guitar you ever owned?

One of my mom’s boyfriends gave me an old guitar he had laying around — a Hawaiian guitar, a steel guitar. It was acoustic, so I horsed around and figured out there wasn’t much I could do with it. You had to play it on your lap; it was a lap guitar. I took that guitar into a music store and had them convert it into a regular Spanish guitar, we called them back in the day, which is like the regular acoustic. That’s what I started playing on.

Was he a musician himself? Or was it something he had laying around?

He wasn’t a musician at all. I had no idea where that came from. I remember later on, when I came out of the service, I was still only 20, and I was playing at the Wayne Show Bar here in town. He came and heard me play. Kind of amazing.

Then my dad brought me to a pawn shop in Detroit and I think bought me an acoustic Harmony guitar for 15 bucks. That was my first real store guitar, as it were. I must have been nine or 10, because I remember doing my first record date when I was 15.

Do you remember the first songs you learned?

I had a couple of cousins, Marilyn and Jim Thompson up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, who were playing country songs — Hank Williams, those kind of songs on guitar. That’s what spurred my interest and got me started. I started playing country music first. I think you’ve got country, R&B, gospel, blues, all of those are interconnected. I ended up getting into the rockabilly stuff, all the Sun Records things, so the first record I got hired to play on — and I contracted the other musicians, and made sure one of them could drive, because my friends were only 15 — was a rockabilly thing.

How did you make the transition to R&B? Was it kind of in the air in Michigan?

I started doing the country thing and then I had a cousin, Doug Stewart, and we started playing guitars together, 13 and 14 years old, and we got into playing Jimmy Reed songs. Then we started doing songs by [Hank Ballard and] the Midnighters. That started transitioning, but while still doing that, I was still listening to Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins and those guys. It was kind of like parallel paths; we were still doing some of the earlier blues guys ‘[music], and I was still doing the rockabilly. Rock ‘n ‘roll was just starting. I remember going to a guitar instructor and playing him “Maybellene” by Chuck Berry: “Can you teach me how to do this?” He seemed a bit mystified. [laughs] He didn’t quite know what Chuck was doing. I was 16, working two nights a week, one night at a wedding and one night at a teen club, and “Johnny B. Goode” was [big]; Chuck Berry was a major influence.

Who were your favorite guitar players?

I liked Jimmy Reed and B.B. King. Jimmy was more of a singer, but he got me into doing it. From there I went through T-Bone Walker. I was pretty much aware of James Burton, who I got to know later on. Scotty Moore with Elvis — I was aware of what those guys were doing.

Did you go into the service after high school?

Yeah. We were doing the teen clubs and the wedding bands, and once I turned 18 and graduated, I wanted to play music. But here in town, you had to be 21 years old to play at the bars. I literally didn’t have a job, so I figured, you know what, I’ll just volunteer for the draft. I was in the service for two years. I was in the 101st Airborne Division; I was a paratrooper. After that, the first year or so, I moved on to South Carolina. Myself and the Airborne kind of butted heads one day, when they were going out for maneuvers and I’d been out playing a gig in town. I showed up at 5:30 in the morning coming out of a taxi cab in my civilian clothes with my guitar and amp in one hand. It seemed like the entire division was out there doing maneuvers. I almost got court-martialed.

I ended up working in an army hospital down in South Carolina. There, I was recording with Maurice Williams and playing service clubs. I actually got a record deal on May Records, and I recorded a song I wrote, only they said, “You could never have a hit with the name Dennis Coffey.” So they gave me the name Clark Summit. That wasn’t a hit. [laughs] Nothing really happened with it. I got discharged out of the army after two years, came back to Detroit, and a friend called me after two weeks and said, “They need a guitar player in this band at the Wayne Show Bar, they want you to audition.” I got the job. By week three, I was a full-time musician working six nights a week at the clubs in Detroit.

I was still only 20. I was working at a place called the Dixie Belle Barn Burner in Detroit, and I looked up and seen a couple guys coming toward me. After two years in the army, you grow up a little bit, and I could tell they were cops, plainclothesmen. As I saw them coming, I [had] pulled out my wallet, put it on the floor, put my foot on it. They approached me and wanted to see my ID. I made a big show of looking for it: “I must have left it at home.” They said, “We’re coming in tomorrow night, and if you don’t have your ID we’re ticketing the owner and you’re out of business.” The next night I was going to be 21 — but not until midnight. They never did come back, and I was 21. It was OK for me to jump out of airplanes and take all these risks when I was 18 and 19, but it wasn’t OK for me to work at a bar. That was ironic to me.

By that time it was 1961, and Motown had been established. Were you paying them any attention yet?

When I was 16, I had a partner [who] did Elvis tunes on acoustic. I did electric, and we did some [gigs at] service clubs. We got this idea we’d go to Fortune Records and pay to cut a demo — like Elvis did in Memphis. The woman running Fortune Records was impressed enough with the song we wrote where she hooked us up with Nat Tarnopol, who was Jackie Wilson’s producer. He decided he would record this song on us at United Sound here in Detroit. He hooked us up with Berry Gordy, the arranger. He brought together some musicians, and we were rehearsing in his living room. We ended up recording this thing; nothing came out — they couldn’t get a deal; I don’t know what happened. Six, eight months, a year went by. We went back to Nat and said, “You know what? We’re tired of the record business. We want our contract back because nothing’s happening.” He gave us our contract back. A year later, Berry had a new partner called Bearwood who were putting a new record company together and asked if we’d be interested. We just said no, we weren’t.

That was the first time that, perhaps, I could have been on the ground floor. The second time I was already doing sessions with Motown, and I was working with Mike Theodore in production, and we recorded this single, “It’s Your Thing,” an instrumental version of the Isley Brothers [song]. I gave one to Hank Cosby, who was Motown’s contractor, to give to Berry. And I gave one to Theodore; he sent it to [Sussex Records head] Clarence Avant. Clarence Avant responded fairly quickly and gave us an album deal and a budget. Later, Hank came to me on a session and said, “Berry really liked that record. He wants to sign you up.” It was too late. I could have been with Motown, but it just wasn’t meant to be, I guess.

Still, you’re best known for playing on Motown hits. You were a freelancer, weren’t you?

I was a freelancer all the time. I was never under contract to Motown. In fact, I just talked to a couple of tour groups at the Motown Museum last Saturday at Studio A and gave them an insight on how we actually recorded the songs back in the day. So I still am connected to that. But I was signed under contract as a staff producer for Sussex Records, but they allowed me to do [outside] sessions, and Motown allowed me to do sessions. I worked for everybody: Wilson Pickett, the Dramatics, the whole crowd. And then I was doing the producing. It worked out better for me because I had the freedom to do what I wanted.

Were you still living in Detroit during that time?

I moved to L.A. in ’73. Motown had left. This was pretty much a ghost town, musically. They were the biggest game in town, and they attracted [musicians] because of their success. In the ’60s, people were coming to Detroit, or were in Detroit — if they had a song, or wanted to get a record deal, there were a lot of opportunities. But once Motown left, the whole magic of the Detroit sound kind of went with it. I knew the first day out in L.A. that Motown called me out there. I was still a staff producer at Sussex. I went to MoWest out there at 10 in the morning. They had a tracking studio downstairs and an overdub studio upstairs. I didn’t get out of there till 4 a.m. the next day.

When did Sussex hire you?

1968 or ’69. Mickey Stevenson started Venture Records [for MGM]. Mickey left, and Clarence Avant was brought in to try to revitalize the label. I had an album out on that label. Mike Theodore and I produced this group called the Sunliners, who became Rare Earth. It wasn’t enough; it went under, and that’s when Clarence started Sussex. “Scorpio” was the first project we did with Sussex.

There’s a kind of jokey mythology that’s surrounded a lot of ’70s L.A. session players, thanks to things like the Web comedy show Yacht Rock. But was there a “session musician culture”? Did you feel some sense of camaraderie with session people, or was it more single-minded, go in and do your take?

I played with the Funk Brothers, so you had that kind of camaraderie there. [Motown bass god James] Jamerson was my best friend over there. I still talk to his wife, and his son James Jamerson Jr. has sat in with me a few times. He’s a good bass player too. The other guys, I’d have a party and Bongo [percussionist Ernie Brown] would come to the party, Pistol [drummer Richard Allen], those guys. We were all friends, we’d played in clubs together, all that.

Who would be your second-favorite bassist after Jamerson?

Bob Babbitt, of course; his solo on “Scorpio” was a hell of a solo. He was certainly one of my favorite bass players.

When I went to L.A., there were so many things going on. I was doing 18 sessions a week in L.A.; I was doing 18 sessions a week here in Detroit, too. I found after three years in L.A., I was still going to new studios and meeting new musicians out there. I knew a few. I hung out with Jay Graydon; he was a good guitar player. We tried to help each other out. But generally speaking, I was working with Mike Theodore and I was doing so many different sessions. It wasn’t the same musicians; it was different guys all the time.

Jay Graydon is probably most famous for his solo on Steely Dan’s “Peg.” Was there ever any kind of music talk — “That was a great solo you played there,” or whatever?

No. We were usually focused on the day’s activities. Our challenge was to try and come up with a good record, working for the producer and the arranger, who were generally the people we saw all the time. We didn’t have time to really analyze or compare notes — I didn’t, I was so busy all the time. You went in, you might have met new players, but you were focused on trying to make hopefully what you thought was a great record, where the producers and arrangers thought it was a great record.

Where were you the first time you heard a sample of your own recording on someone else’s record?

I was in Studio A, a studio here in Dearborn, [Michigan]. A friend of mine named Eric Morganson was my keyboard player out on the road when I was promoting “Scorpio.” I was doing a record for TSR, I think it was about ’85, an album called Motor City Magic. I said to Eric, “Just for the heck of it, why don’t you play me what these young guys are doing, or whatever you think is current. I want to hear what they’re doing.” So he puts on this record and I hear my guitar part from “Getting It On.” It’s Chuck D and Public Enemy. I turned to Eric and said, “I don’t remember getting paid for that session.” I ran into Chuck D when I got the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in Philadelphia. I said, “Chuck, man, you never paid us for that record.” He says, “Man, we didn’t have any money. We knew who you guys were, but the record company didn’t give us any money [for sample clearance fees]. I thought you were going to sue the company and give us some money.”

With the new album, did you work on the tracks before the singers came on board, or had you already decided who was singing on which songs?

Al Sutton, who works with Kid Rock a lot, was the producer, [with] Eric Hoegemeyer. For this album, I wrote a bunch of original material first, demoed the material at home, where I have a Boss 16-track, and I used a drum machine, overlay bass lines, and then bring them into the studio, and my management team, which includes Al, picked out the ones they thought would work best. I must have wrote about 40 or 50 tracks. Initially we recorded about five or six tracks, and they used those to get the deal with Strut. Then, my team figured out, “Let’s do some cover songs and get some younger singers in here. The key with the cover songs is that they’ll be songs you played on the first time around.” They picked the artists. I wrote out arrangements on the rhythm section for everything we recorded.

On your album, “All Your Goodies Are Gone” swings differently than the Parliament original. Was that an arrangement you’d played before, or did you decide to switch it up for this album?

Once we got in the studio, we started with the original, to remain somewhat true with the concept of it. But we’re dealing with a different generation of young musicians here. The one thing I wouldn’t tell them is, “You’ve got to play it just like the record.” I wrote it out like the record in the arrangement, but I did not go, “You hear this? I want this feel.” That’s ridiculous. If someone did that to me, I’d say, “You know what? Then get somebody, if you can find somebody, who still plays like they did 40 years ago.” I don’t do that. That’s what we did. But we had young, aggressive players who did a great job. I wrote out a basic chart and we got busy. It was about us playing together now. It wasn’t a conscious thing. We just got in there and did the thing. That’s what made Motown so great.