Two minutes into Dennis Coffey’s funk masterpiece “Scorpio” it begins: one of the slinkiest bass solos in recorded music, courtesy fellow funk brother Bob Babbitt. By 1972, the year “Scorpio” broke, Coffey and Babbitt already had deep history, one cemented a decade earlier in seminal Detroit rock ‘n’ roll band, the Royaltones. By the time Coffey and Babbitt joined in ’62, the Royaltones — led by saxophonist George Katsakis — had already hit nationally with “Poor Boy” in 1958.
“I met George when we were all 18 or 19,” Coffey says. “I remember Babbitt playing upright bass at the teen clubs, that’s how far we go back. When we turned 21 we were all ready to go into the bars because we knew all the rock ‘n’ roll songs; we’d been playing every Friday and Saturday night for years.”
Looking for a new guitarist, Katsakis invited Coffey to a Royaltones gig and he sat in on Billy Doggett’s instrumental hit “Honky Tonk.” “Our theory at that time,” Katsakis says, “was if you were a guitar player and you could play ‘Honky Tonk,’ you could play anything. And he nailed it.”
With drummer Marcus Terry and saxophonist-vocalist Dave Sandy on board, longtime Royaltone associate Babbitt became a member. The most legendary lineup of the Royaltones was complete.
With Coffey writing vocal arrangements and Babbitt playing bass and trumpet simultaneously, the band stepped up. Coffey and Katsakis began a fruitful songwriting collaboration, resulting in the local hit “Our Faded Love,” its rockin’ flipside “Holy Smokes,” and the first Royaltones vocal number “Lonely World.”
The Royaltones’ manager Harry Balk hooked them up with Del Shannon, who Balk also handled. “The first million seller I played on was ‘Handy Man,’” Coffey says. “We did that at Bell Sound in New York.” The Royaltones’ driving aesthetic also spiked Shannon classics like “Stranger in Town,” “Keep Searchin’” and “Move It on Over,” co-written by Coffey and cut at Detroit’s Golden World.
The band made its final stand at Bay Shores, New Jersey in the summer of 1964. —Michael Hurtt