It's a calm Saturday morning on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard. Just west of Henry Ford Hospital, cars line both sides of the streets. The parking lot of the James H. Cole funeral home is overflowing, and, directly next door, patrons in small groups walk up to the Motown Museum, aka Hitsville USA, for an early morning weekend tour. The majority of these folks are tourists; some from Italy, some from Spain, all are on hand to learn more glorious musical minutiae about Motown Records, Detroit's fourth-biggest export behind the Big Three. Under a blanket of gray clouds outside, the sky looks like it won't be relinquishing any sun all day long. But for true music purists, there's some ray of sunshine. See, one of the hardest-working musicians in the history of the museum is about to walk in as the day's surprise guest.
Guitar ace and longtime Detroit musician Dennis Coffey is parked outside in his gray Honda Accord. In a moment, he's carefully making his way into the building flanked by two women from London-based Strut Records, his new record label. People take note of Coffey; they have to. He's not recognizable by face, but he's obviously a star. Dressed sharply in a black suit, black tie, black Kangol hat and dark shades, Coffey steps into the Motown Museum as if he owns it. Motown Museum staffers at the ticket window reach out to shake his hand.
Many patrons waiting in line for the tour don't notice him. They've heard his guitar licks a thousand times — probably more — but like the majority of the Funk Brothers, the quality of his work has always superseded his appearance. It's a traditional Detroit way.
For much of the year, Coffey's name has been in and out of international music news mostly because his "comeback" album, the stellar, soul-drenched Dennis Coffey, which dropped in April. Going on 71, the popular session-man-turned-guitar-star grew tired of standing in the shadows and put out the first self-titled album of his life — his 14th — decades after he'd earned the right to do so. As it's worked out, the album is giving one of the most respected soul-funk guitarists of all time a legitimate career resurgence that most musicians his age only dream of, that is, if they're still alive.
In the last year alone, Coffey's gotten more press, notoriety and first-rate gigs than he has had since his glory years of the '60s and '70s. He's signed a record deal with one of London's hippest labels, performed at music festivals around the world, including playing the main stage at Bonnaroo over the summer, the oldest dude performing. He did Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, sitting in with the Roots. In funk circles, dude's the comeback artist of the year and, having personally watched him perform shows in Austin, Texas, Detroit, and on the West Coast this year, audiences outside of the Motor City are more thrilled than local fans to see Coffey let it rip. That's just if we're talking U.S. fans. Funk lovers and Northern soul enthusiasts in the U.K. and abroad appreciate his individual contributions even more. Quinton Scott, owner of Strut Records, talks of the genesis of signing Coffey to a deal.
"I had personally loved Dennis' work for years and had originally come across his solo material through collecting hip-hop breaks," Scott says. "Those abrasive guitar tracks like 'Scorpio' and 'Ride Sally Ride' sounded completely otherworldly and 'Theme From Black Belt Jones' was always played at London rare groove clubs I went to during the '80s with its unique use of vocal harmonies. Over the years, I had gradually realized just how many records he had featured on.
"When we were approached with new demos by his management, a lot fell into place fairly quickly," Scott continues. "From the label side, Dennis' story in music was unique and hadn't been widely told. He had so many anecdotes throughout his career, which were clearly invaluable for the PR campaign. From his new demos, it was obvious very quickly that his management understood where he needed to be in the current marketplace ... [thus] the album has sold steadily in a very difficult climate and is garnering some fantastic feedback."
His recent boom in global notoriety finds Coffey standing tall inside the same building where he contributed to more than 100 hit records in the late 1960s and '70s as a member of the Funk Brothers, the scarily skilled core of Detroit musos who laid fat grooves and melody into virtually every Motown song you can name.
(Click below for a Coffey re-mix collage by DJ House Shoes, including Coffey's solo work, spots with Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and others, plus testimonials from the likes of Jazzy Jeff and Q-Tip.)
After exchanging pleasantries with staffers, Coffey's mini-entourage heads inside Hitsville. In a moment, Coffey looks as if he might address the tourists on hand but he ducks into a side room instead, taking a seat by himself. No, he's not an asshole. He's older now, and this is how he rolls.
In his mind, tourists can stroll through the Hitsville museum and marvel at photos of larger-than-life performers such as Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson all they want. That's great for them. But the guitarist, who made both of said acts sound significantly better in the studio, despite that he was never a household name, would rather sip a cup of coffee alone.
Forty-five minutes later, the museum tour culminates inside Motown's hallowed Studio A. Coffey strolls in cooler than a breeze and addresses the 25 or so gathered. He points out where he placed his famous wah-wah pedals and guitar effects every afternoon, cranking out a tune an hour, five days a week for the bosses at Motown. He reminisces about what those emotionally grueling sessions in this hot-box were really like.
The sightseers are surprised, some look at each other as if realizing at that very moment that a living Funk Brother is in their presence, showing them how all those life-altering records were made. This is a rare, one-off Coffey appearance at Motown, a chance to entertain his U.K. visitors.
He talks of immortals, such as bassist James Jamerson and drummer Pistol Allen, and where they'd position themselves.
"Jamerson sat here, Uriel Jones and Pistol Allen sat over there, [Bob] Babbitt used to sit right here."
The Motown fans try to not to let their heads spin: Here's this guitarist who's comfortable and relaxed standing in the very spot where he plugged in his guitar and headed the rhythm section on songs for the Temptations, Diana Ross, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, the Spinners and a mountain of other Motown acts. The fans understand now how he wasn't so relaxed then, recording hit songs on deadline directly to tape without rehearsal.
Coffey finishes his little history lesson and wins resounding applause.
This is more than some old guy recalling his glory days working at a record label that pumped music out assembly-line style. Think of it: His guitar notes are engrained in the DNA of most Americans over the age of 25, whether they realize it or not. And those are merely a fraction of the marquee songs Coffey played on during his Motown time in Detroit and Los Angeles backing up the stars. His riffs and signature licks for artists such as the Floaters' "Float On," the Supremes' "Someday We'll Be Together," the Four Tops' "Still Waters Run Deep," the Spinners' "It's a Shame" and the Dramatics' "In the Rain" are powerful enough to make him a legend among soul music purists, certainly. Forget that his wah-wah guitar on Temptations hits such as "Psychedelic Shack" and "Cloud 9" were not only innovations, but they ushered in a new era of soul and R&B guitar playing. This is without even touching his funked-up solo career as a frontman with the Detroit Guitar Band or his short-lived sting with Lyman Woodard.
How did he manage to be involved in so many key sessions over the years?
"I was a free agent back then and it had its advantages," Coffey says with a smile. "When things were really cooking, I was doing double sessions with Motown every day. I'd take a break, then do the producer's workshop with [famed songwriting and producing trio] Holland-Dozier-Holland and crank out stuff for Hot Wax and Invictus until two in the morning, and then could do something with Muscle Shoals or Stax or whoever as I pleased. So for a lot of the key songs of that era, I got calls to play on this stuff because I was never under an exclusive contract with Motown like a lot of the other guys. I just did the sessions."
Coffey's sitting inside of some old offices at Motown Records, but it's not easy pulling old stories out of him. Sure, the guitarist can rattle off tales that are so rich in history you sometimes wonder why he'd talk of anything else. Like the one about being in the studio with Berry Gordy, or watching Stevie Wonder play drums on the Spinners' "It's a Shame" — because "nobody else could hear the notes." But Coffey already wrote a book of those tales, 2004's Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars, that can walk you through his glory days of yesteryear. Turns out Coffey isn't living in a past reality. He's here. He's living in the here and now. He hopes others are too.
Recorded at Rust Belt Studios in Royal Oak (often home to Kid Rock, the Detroit Cobras and others), Coffey spent the bulk of last year piecing together an album that a music label like Strut could market to the masses. In order for that to happen, Coffey is savvy enough to recognize that a team needed to be put together. Producer Al Sutton, Rust Belt's owner, brought in Chris Peters (formerly of Electric Six) and Chris Fuller to manage Coffey and give him the freedom to simply focus on creating the music and nothing else.
"You know what happened, this is the first time that I didn't have to be the producer on my own album," Coffey says with a sigh that explains how taxing it'd been in the past. "I'm usually in charge of everything — from finding artists, creating material, recording it, mastering it, and so on. With this album, my management picked the musicians, they picked the singers, I wrote a bunch of songs and they took care of the rest."
As he thinks harder about what other stars aligned to make everything work out, he can't help but remember one key financial advantage.
"What was also crucial was that Al Sutton said, 'Let's just work as long and as hard as possible. ...' I've worked harder on this album than any album I've ever done. It's because, normally, when I was with Mike Theodore [his ex-production partner], we'd get budgeted for 10 songs, and you got 10 songs. That's how we rolled. With this particular thing, I could work hard on the small parts, and it paid off."
So Coffey and crew pieced together a polished album that showcases his dexterity and chops, how he plays well enough to make heads turn and jaws drop, pretty much better than anyone, so to speak. It also reveals an in-touchness, not only in how the songs sound but the contemporary musician who played and sang on them.
Guest singers include Scottish pop star Paolo Nutini, Lisa Kekaula of the Bellrays, Kings Go Forth, and fellow Michigan stars Mayer Hawthorne, Mick Collins, and the Detroit Cobras' Rachel Nagy. The result is a handful of new compositions like the fiery instrumental tune "7th Galaxy" or "Plutoniuos" mixed with new versions of older Coffey originals that are infused with a shot of fresh blood. For instance, singer Nutini intones a version of the hard-grinding "Only Good for Conversation," which is actually a song by the Detroiter Rodriguez. (You'll note that Coffey, along with Mike Theodore, produced a hunk of Rodriguez's now-classic album, Cold Fact. And that, despite how no musicians were credited on Cold Fact, every electric guitar part was played by Coffey.)
Coffey co-manager Chris Peters says the plan wasn't to "bring in the original artists from all of Dennis' old songs but rather to show how his work has been a big influence on younger artists as well.
"We want people to remember him for his Motown work," he continues, "but also point to these other things that he did with his career as well, reminding people of all this great, lesser-known stuff that he did. Like bringing in Mayer Hawthorne to sing a Parliament song ['All Your Goodies are Gone']. Most people don't know that Dennis played on the first Funkadelic record."
Coffey and Hawthorne have actually built a relationship over the past year and a half and respect each other considerably. Hawthorne says they connected when "Dennis needed some vocals for his album, and I needed some guitar for mine, so it was a great situation. He's a true professional in the studio. Most of the time I didn't even have to give him any direction — we just hit the 'record' button. I stayed for an extra hour after the session just to hear him tell some Motown stories."
Coffey is featured on Hawthorne's new album, How Do You Do?, which is out this week. "He's gonna go far ... the kid is really talented and dedicated," Coffey says of Hawthorne.
If having Hawthorne and younger musicians on the record is a smart move, partnering Coffey with popular Detroit funk-soul outfit Will Sessions Band was genius.
Headed by trumpeter and ace bandleader Sam Beaubien, the Will Sessions Band cut its teeth playing funk licks in the Detroit underground scene for years, so seeing the two entities work together makes sense. Earlier this year, Coffey lugged his guitar and bones into the Majestic for a Funk Night with Will Sessions and played well into the early morning in front of a room packed with twentysomething revelers.
So Beaubien with Will Sessions backed Coffey for the bulk of the year when he toured domestically, playing dates in the Midwest, South, and on the East Coast. (The Will Sessions' horn section also backed Coffey in the studio.) Unfortunately there wasn't enough money to fly the band overseas, so Dennis used Haggis Horns (who often played live with Amy Winehouse) while in London and Paris, but it's clear as crystal that, given the band's robust sound, Will Sessions is the best fit available.
"Dennis is such a veteran, he didn't complain once about all of the traveling," Beaubien says. "We're at Bonnaroo on the main stage, it's, like, 100 degrees and he didn't complain. I'm able to learn a lot just by watching him."
Many people know about the meteoric success that Coffey's "Scorpio" single on Sussex Records had back in the early 1970s (it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard magazine's Hot 100) and about the 1969's wild, freeflowing Hair and Thangs album, which gave Coffey a cultish funk following. The guys of Will Sessions grew up studying Coffey's funk breaks religiously long before they ever knew they'd get a chance to become part of his band.
Beaubien talks about how sweet it is to play music with one of his personal funk heroes. "For us, we weren't even born when Dennis made all those hit records. We had to find them on vinyl and learn them by ear. Now we play them all the time with Dennis. It's a lot of fun."
Hawthorne still owns multiple copies of "Scorpio" on 45 and considers it one of the best funk breaks of all time. Hip-hop producers and artists sampled Coffey's music widely in the '80s as well — often without his permission.
How did so many latch on to Coffey?
"Dennis Coffey is one of the founders of the funk," says DJ Houseshoes, who also has multiple copies of Coffey's material on wax. "His sound has influenced all generations that have come forth since the Motown era. I didn't truly realize that he had such a recognizable sound until Strut contacted me to do the promotional mix for the release of his [latest] album. From his own classics, to those he took part in as a session player, to the albums he produced, Dennis can touch on a wide range of emotion with his playing, yet still have the funk ingrained in every note he plays."
In a way, the pirated samples from Coffey's "Ride Sally Ride" off his 1972 album, Going for Myself, which was sampled by LL Cool J, Ultramagnetic MCs, Compton's Most Wanted and DJ Qbert among others, helped keep his name in the streets, even as Coffey was taking a 20-year break from music and working full-time in the auto industry. At first, Coffey didn't understand the hip-hop sampling tradition of choosing to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.
"My middle son, James, he came back to me, he was listening to a lot of hip hop, and he laid out 20 songs — boom-boom-boom — that had sampled my music. It wasn't in the liner notes. He just heard it 'cause he knew my stuff. My son James made a cassette of all my songs. And because he was listening to all my songs, he knew them. So he heard this hip-hop back in, like, '86 and was like, 'Dad, this came from "Scorpio," this came from "Theme From Black Belt Jones," this is from "Getting it On,"' and I called Clarence Avant who owned the copyrights to all the Sussex stuff. So I said, 'What do you think about this? These guys are clearly using our stuff.' He said, 'You know what? Let me talk to the other label presidents. The last thing we want to do is have everyone suing each other. So let me see if we can find a way for those guys to start paying.' And then I started getting royalty checks. I started getting paid."
"It's funny," Coffey continues. "I ran into Chuck D. At the R&B Foundation Awards, I got a Funk Brother Pioneer award, and Chuck D was there. And I said, 'Chuck, I don't remember you paying me for this and that,' and he said, 'Aw, man, we knew who you guys were. We just didn't have the money from our label so we ended up sampling you. We thought you'd sue the label and get some money that way.'"
These days, Coffey isn't as rich as he could be, but he lives in Farmington with his wife of four years (she also used to work at Motown) and says he's living mostly comfortable. He's three weeks shy of his 71st birthday and says he doesn't have any health complications except for the need to watch his diet. As for his last true health scare: "When I was 13, my appendix ruptured and I almost died," he says. "Other than that, I'm alright."
He plans to keep playing music as long as his body will allow him. His former bandmate from the Lyman Woodard Trio and longtime friend, Melvin Davis, says he's not shocked in the slightest that Coffey is still at it. "There aren't many of us that are still going," Davis says, "but I'm not surprised that Dennis is one of them. It's all well-deserved as he's worked hard for many years. ... Nobody can deny that Dennis plays the hell out of that guitar."
Coffey says he's preparing for a follow-up album, and the owner of Strut Records hopes to work with Coffey again. There's no question that Coffey has another record in him. Hell, he brags about family genes and that his mother's sister could still play piano at the age of 96 without mistakes.
"I played with Les Paul when he was 93. I saw Andrés Segovia play at 92, so I figure I'll keep on going. I still practice two hours a day and I'm still growing. I'm dedicated to playing guitar and that's the way it's going to be."
Dennis Coffey featuring Will Sessions appears Friday, Oct. 21 at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave.,Ferndale; 248-544-3030. The Bo-Keys support. Doors: 8 p.m.; $15.