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Dennis Coffey: Hot Coffey and The Pursuit of Excellence

Chris M. Slawecki By

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All I know is one thing: I did my first record date at age 15 and got paid for it. That was a good thing right there. —Dennis Coffey
Every Tuesday night at the Northern Lights Lounge on Baltimore Street in Detroit, you'll find a funky little guitar-organ trio setting up musical shop. You'll find Julian Vanslyke on drums and Phil Whitfield on organ. And playing right in between them, you'll find one of the world's best guitarists—Dennis Coffey.

You may not know Dennis Coffey by name, but you sure know the sound of his guitar. In the late 1950s and early '60s, that sound was a fixture on recordings from local Detroit labels plus national acts like Del Shannon. In 1966, Coffey replaced guitarist Don Davis (who was transitioning from musician to producer for The Dramatics and others) in a trio led by organist Lyman Woodard with for regular gigs throughout Detroit, including and especially Morey Baker's Showplace Lounge. Befriended by Motown bassist James Jamerson, Coffey played in the legendary "Funk Brothers" Motown house band from 1968 until 1971, and his distinctive guitar sound graced Edwin Starr's "War," The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion" and "Just My Imagination," and dozens of other Motown hits.

On Record Store Day in November 2016, Resonance Records released Hot Coffey in the Big D: Burnin' at Morey Baker's Showplace Lounge, which captures all of Coffey's incendiary, transcendent guitar glory from a 1968 show with the Woodard Trio in that small Detroit club, as a limited-edition vinyl LP (and subsequently in other formats in January 2017).

Hot Coffey in the Big D: Burnin' at Morey Baker's Showplace Lounge pours out steaming hot cup after cup of sticky thick, bluesy and jazzy instrumental soul. Recorded by Coffey's longtime partner Mike Theodore from Theodore's studio right up the street, Burnin' captures a typical, which is to say typically brilliant, set: Timeless blues ("Wade in the Water"), contemporary covers (Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "The Look of Love" by Burt Bacharach and Hal David), a Detroit favorite ("Casanova," a Ruby Andrews single on which Coffey played), a jazz standard (Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage") and a few original jams ("Fuzz" and "The Big D") that took shape on the bandstand. "I played a Gibson Birdland guitar at the gig, which I still own today!" Coffey marvels.

Hot Coffey in the Big D compiles an seven-song primer on the best of Coffey's style: The free and open, soft jazz touch that opens "Phoenix," his supple yet crunchy psychedelic serpentines in"Fuzz," his deep blue liquid dives into "Wade in the Water" and so much more. Their sound is pure soul; their spontaneous intricate interplay is pure jazz.

Of course, the Motown sound wove throughout 1968 Detroit, and Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis had their own connections, Woodard with Martha Reeves and The Vandellas and Davis as Smokey Robinson's personal drummer. "What I liked about being with the trio was, Dennis is a tremendous guitarist and Woodard was an organist who came from a jazz sensibility like Jimmy Smith," Davis recalls in the liner notes. "So the three of us doing funk with the jazz vibe was very unique at the time."

"It was a great time for us to be able to not only play what we enjoyed, but to see audiences come and listen intently," Coffey reflects. "This is something I will always remember."

Coffey kept making his own music too. His first solo album Hair and Things (1969, Maverick), with covers from the musical Hair ("Let the Sun Shine," "Aquarius") and The Beatles ("Hey Jude"), was a psychedelic smash, and launched his Isley Brothers' cover "It's Your Thing" as a single. After his Funk Brothers stint, Coffey's guitar resonated throughout the 1970s in soul chart-toppers (for other labels) by The Chairman of the Board ("Give Me Just a Little More Time"), The Dramatics ("In the Rain," "What You see is What You Get"), Quincy Jones ("Body Heat"), Johnny Taylor ("Who's Making Love"), and the Undisputed Truth ("Smiling Faces").

Soul entrepreneur Clarence Avant signed Coffey and Theodore as producers for his fledgling Sussex Records label, for which he was rewarded when the duo produced the 1972 debut album Nice to Be With You by Gallery (a band that Coffey and Theodore more or less assembled in the studio around singer-songwriter Jim Gold), which launched three Top 40 pop hits.

Sussex also released Coffey's own hit single, the scalding and icy instrumental "Scorpio." It was the rare instrumental single to sell a million copies and break into the pop Top 10. And although no one could know it at the time, its crunching and lengthy (nearly half the song) breakdown featuring Funk Brother drummers Uriel Jones and Richard Allen and bassist Bob Babbitt became a foundational sampling pillar for rap and hip-hop in the following decades. "The original break is wide stereo, hi-hats over in one channel, kicks and snares in another," London-based drum and bass producer Charlie Fracture once explained. "That gives you a lot of options."

"I think that's what broke 'Scorpio,' and a lot of my records," Coffey agreed. "I had the guitar parts out in the open—they could grab it, sample it and then loop it, make other records around it."

Coffey published his memoir Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars (University of Michigan Press) in 2004. "My major influences were guitarists Scotty Moore (with Elvis), James Burton (with Ricky Nelson), B.B. King, Chuck Berry and Wes Montgomery," he wrote about his formative years. "Chuck was playing some guitar licks so innovative that I couldn't even imagine what the hell he was doing."

In 2011, Coffey was honored with a Distinguished Achievement Award by the Detroit Music Awards and released an eponymous solo album for Strut Records to global acclaim. Through every phase of Coffey's career, the sound of Detroit rumbles like a wide-open freeway. "In my estimation," wrote producer Zev Feldman for the set's companion booklet, "Dennis is one of the baddest cats ever; he just hasn't gotten his due as a soloist—until now." And just about every Tuesday night, you can find one of the baddest cats ever ripping things up at the Northern Lights Lounge—just "two miles away from Motown," Coffey brightly notes—on Baltimore Street in Detroit.

All About Jazz: You still hold down a weekly gig at the Northern Lights Lounge in Detroit. Who are you playing with these days?

Dennis Coffey: I have my own band. I have Phil Whitfield on organ, I have Julian Vanslyke on drums, and then three Tuesdays out of the month I have guest vocalists: Pat Smilie on the first Tuesday, Theo Spight on the second Tuesday, and Lady Champagne on the third Tuesday. I play thirty minutes of my stuff and then I bring the singer up. This is my eighth year of doing this every Tuesday night when I'm not on the road. Last Tuesday night, the place was absolutely packed all night and there was a film crew in doing a segment for a documentary on Motown, so it was pretty wild.

AAJ: Who gave you your first guitar and who or what were some of your earliest inspirations to play it?

DC: My mom and dad were divorced since I was real little. My mom's boyfriend gave me this guitar he had in his closet. I had not had a guitar in my hands, and somebody neglected to tell me that you can't play a Hawaiian guitar with a high action for a steel bar like you play a regular guitar. I was kind of screwing around with it but I couldn't play it. So I took it over to a music store and they converted it, changed the bridge and fixed it, so I could play it then. That's the first one I had. I horsed around with that one for a while, then my dad took me to a pawn shop in downtown Detroit and I bought, I think it was a Harmony acoustic, guitar for fifteen dollars. That was my first real guitar—I thought, anyway.

AAJ: Hot Coffey in the Big D was recorded in 1968, which was such a fertile time for progressive and popular music—especially soul music. So it makes sense to ask you about three guitarists who were popular playing soul music at this same time but who played it quite differently from you. First, your thoughts on Jimi Hendrix?

DC: He was definitely the psychedelic guy. He was using a wah-wah pedal, him and Eric Clapton were using wah-wah pedals and fuzztones. A friend of mine, Joe Podorsek, who owned Capitol Music here in Detroit back in the day (he taught Ted Nugent how to play), had all these new pedals and devices, so any time that something new came in, he would show me what it was and maybe had a little record of what it's supposed to sound like and he'd just say, "Take it and use it on a gig. If you decide you like it, then you can buy it." But I didn't learn any of Jimi's songs or anything. Even today, you can hear how innovative he was, that's for sure. But you have to really play at an incredibly loud volume to get into what he was doing, and we didn't play that loud; I was playing small clubs with a basement amp, not these huge Marshall stacks for the feedback and stuff. But I did one time: I brought my amp in when I was doing a session at Motown and I was doing feedback on some Supremes' song and I looked up and there's Berry Gordy and Diana Ross looking at me through the window wondering what I was doing back there!

While I was playing with Lyman Woodard and Melvin Davis, who you hear me with on this CD, we opened up for the MC5 at The Grande Ballroom, which was the mecca for all the rock groups, especially from England—they all played at The Grande. We opened up for the MC5 there. I was doing an instrumental version of "A Day in the Life" because Wes Montgomery did it—Wes Montgomery was my all-time guitar hero, and I watched him play all the time—but the kids recognized it as a Beatles' song so they just jumped right on it. Then the MC5 came on and they were so loud I had to go out into the parking lot! I played once before Ted Nugent and he let me use his amps before he came on, so I wouldn't have to bring my stuff up, which was pretty nice. And I opened up for The Temptations in Cobo Hall back in the day. Hendrix was very innovative, you know? He was a whole other thing. But Wes Montgomery was also very innovative and by that time I was going down to the Drome Lounge on Dexter in Detroit, sitting in front of Wes Montgomery and watching him play and hanging out with him during his breaks.

AAJ: One of your early singles was The Isley Brothers' hit "It's Your Thing": How about Ernie Isley?

DC: I listened to him and thought he did a good job with The Isley Brothers, but by then I was doing my thing. Ernie did a good job. I did like the tone that he had, I think he ran a fuzztone through a phaser or something and had a nice tone. But that's about all with him, I think. He's a good player, there's no doubt about it.
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