Time traveling with legendary Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey
As a member of Motown’s intrepid studio band The Funk Brothers, Dennis Coffey has played a key role in some of the most beloved soul classics ever recorded, including The Spinners’ “It’s A Shame,” Edwin Starr’s “War” and Marvin Gaye’s babymaking anthem “I Want You,” among countless others.
He was also paramount in bringing the legendary Detroit label into the psychedelic rock era with his fuzz-and-wah-drenched electric guitar licks that permeated such hits as The Temptations’ Cloud Nine. Additionally, he worked with Funkadelic on their eponymous 1970 debut masterpiece, scored the disgustingly funky soundtrack to the 1974 blaxploitation favorite Black Belt Jones and co-produced Rodriguez’s cult soul classic Cold Fact, in addition to releasing a stinging string of solo albums that have been pilfered by some of the most noteworthy cats in the hip-hop game.
The following is an interview that was originally posted on the long-dormant blog for my old magazine the Interboro Rock Tribune back in 2011. But in light of Omnivore Recordings’ excellent new archival release from the guitarist, One Night at Morey’s: 1968 (released June 8), pulled from a performance at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge in Detroit while he was a member of the Lyman Woodward Trio, I’ve chosen to pull the greatest hits from this satisfying chat for us over here at the Globe. It’s such a good interview, and rescuing it from a dead blog only seemed like the right thing to do.
Coffey’s residency continues at the Northern Lights Lounge in Detroit throughout the month of August. For more information on this American icon, visit him here.
What are your thoughts on how ubiquitous funk music is in the 21st century? Who are some of your favorite contemporary funk artists working today?
I don’t consider myself to be a great listener, I’m much more of a player and practitioner, so it’s not all the bands that I’m familiar with, but I definitely have seen a resurgence of young musicians picking up instruments and cranking out the funk, and I think that’s great.
What was your relationship like with Eddie Hazel? Did you guys bounce a lot of ideas off one another?
For the most part, when I did the Funkadelic sessions, the other musicians were in another room or something, and I was pretty much by myself overdubbing guitar parts, so I didn’t get to spend much time with Eddie. George Clinton and I did meet when I recorded ‘I Wanaa Testify’ with The Parliaments, but I didn’t get to interact with too much with the other guys.
You were key in helping Motown achieve a more rock-based sound with your guitar playing. What kind of rock acts were considered favorites among the Motown camp and who would you consider to be the single greatest inspiration that helped usher in the utilization of electric guitars into their sound?
Well, Motown was already using electric guitars. I brought the psychedelic soul guitar sound, which was much different than what they were using. At that time, they weren’t using things like the fuzztone, the echoplex, the wah-wah pedal, etc. That all came with Norman Whitfield, he was the visionary who wanted to take Motown from the story songs about love into the kind of social commentary guys like Sly Stone and others were doing, the whole protest movement, Woodstock, and all that. Norman had that in his mind.
I was a member of the producer’s workshop at Motown, and I would be with James Jamerson upstairs at Golden World Studios four nights a week for two and half hours straight, and producers could come by and experiment with musicians. After doing that for three weeks, Norman came by and was working on an arrangement for a song called ‘Cloud Nine.’ I happened to have this wah-wah pedal with me, and when he counted it off I used that on the intro, and he says ‘That’s it! That’s what I want.’ So I got the call to record with him and the Temptations and away we went! I was his guy after that. And of course that helped position me for things like Gladys Knight and everything else.
I had been using those kind of guitar effects playing around Detroit with Lyman Woodard & Melvin Davis, and in fact we ended up opening for the MC5. We opened the show with a cover of ‘A Day In The Life’ and right away the kids got it and were into what we were doing.
Of all the original Motown cats, who was the biggest rock fan?
Norman Whitfield was the visionary there. He looked at what guys like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix were doing and incorporated that into his sound. I look at him as a master of dynamics. He would stand in front of Uriel Jones and Pistol Allen, the two drummers, and count the song off, and say things like ‘Now when I point to you, everybody stop playing.’ He was always building up layers, making breakdowns, creating this searing funk with amazing dynamic changes.
How did you come into producing Sixto Rodriguez’s Cold Fact and what are your thoughts on how seminal a work it stands as today?
Mike Theodore and I had worked with Rodriguez as arrangers for two songs with Harry Balk on Impact, which didn’t really end up going anywhere. About a year after those records, Mike called and said ‘Let’s go hear Rodriguez again.’ He was playing in this place called The Sewer, this seedy, funky kind of place on the river. We go in and here’s this guy strumming away, facing the wall. All you can see is the back of his head and his shoulders. We couldn’t see his face at all, so right away that got our attention. It forced us to listen to the lyrics. We both knew that this guy had something, so we got Clarence Avant at Sussex to allow us to do Cold Fact. He was pretty nervous, because he had been working more as a writer than a performer, so about half the record he played with a band, and half we recorded him and his guitar and built the band around him. We knew he was ahead of his time. We looked at him as kind of an inner city version of Bob Dylan, coming up with songs about what he saw in his Detroit neighborhood.
Please tell me your favorite memory of working with Marvin Gaye.
I think that would be when I did I Want You with him in LA. When I moved to LA Mike Theodore and I were staff producers at Sussex, and also worked at Mo West doing the Motown stuff, where Marvin and Leon Ware were doing this album. Since Marvin was producing, he was out with the musicians the whole time, letting us know what he wanted, trying to share his vision with us. He was a very nice man, easy to work with, an easy demeanor. He was very enjoyable to work with.
Did you ever get the chance to work with the Jackson 5?
The first time I encountered them I was in the studio at Hitsville in Detroit. I looked over and coming in was the whole Jackson family. Michael was just a small guy than, and his dad and whole family were with him. His dad was watching the special effect pedals I was using, and asked me what they were. I explained them to him, and he said he wanted to buy those pedals for the Jackson Five, so I gave him the number of Joe Pedorsic at Capital Music where I had gotten mine.
I think we recorded some of the original tracks for their record, but I think when Berry heard them, he might have thought we were a bit too funky, and the tracks got re-recorded.
The last time I ran into them was in the early 70’s when I was living in LA. I had gotten a call to play a big event for all the distributors. I had just played a similar kind of thing with Barbara Streisand. So I asked when the rehearsal would be, and they said ‘well the last guitarist left during rehearsal’ so there wasn’t going to be a rehearsal. I thought ‘that’s not really the kind of thing I want to get involved with’ but they told me they hadn’t just been asked to get a guitar player, they’d been asked to get me specifically. So I performed with them and there were no major glitches. They were doing things like a medley around Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing Sing Sing’ and all of that, and this time the little kid in front was Janet. That was probably the last time I worked with them as a group.
When was the first time you ever heard hip-hop?
I believe the time my engineer played me Public Enemy was the first time I had heard hip-hop, so I guess the first time I heard hip-hop I was playing on the record!
In terms of the heavy amount of times it was sampled, what is your favorite utilization of the use of “Scorpio” in a song, be it hip-hop or R&B, and why?
Boy. There are so many of them, but the first time I heard one stands out. I was in a recording studio, and I asked the engineer for an example of some of the things that people were paying attention to at the time. He played me some Public Enemy, and I hear my guitar part from ‘Getting It On.’ I said ‘I don’t remember getting paid for that session!’
My son James actually listened to a lot of hip-hop, and he was familiar with all of my music. He once sat me down with about 20 cassettes, and told me these all were using my music. I talked to Clarence Avant, who owns the copyrights for the Sussex material, which is a lot of what they were using, and he was able to help get me paid and credit as a writer on many of the songs. He wanted to avoid the kind of thing where all the labels were getting sued. And as a result of that, a lot of the hip-hop guys know me, which has been good. Chuck D and I still stay in contact via e-mail.
Was there ever an instance that you heard one of your guitar licks sampled in a modern song that got your goat?
Not really, generally speaking they would take something I played and re-create something else with it. As long as I started seeing writing credits on my BMI statements for songs I didn’t remember writing, I was okay with it. I never heard something where they took some of my music and changed it all around and made it stupid or anything.
What was the approach you took in regards to the creation of the soundtrack to Black Belt Jones?
I had moved to California with Mike Theodore, because when Motown left Detroit it created kind of a vacuum. Before that everyone in Detroit were getting production deals. There were also all these smaller labels and Detroit had a very active music scene. But when Motown left a lot of that left with them. So Mike & I moved to LA, and one of the reasons for that was that I had always wanted to do film; I’d always wanted to do a theme song. I’d asked Clarence Avant to hook me up with some film folks, so one day he called up and said there was this movie Black Belt Jones that had been shot, and they felt it needed a main theme. I met the folks at Warner Brothers, they showed me the film, and told me where they wanted music. So I wrote it, Mike did the horns and strings, and I put together this vocal counterpoint and ran the vocals through a wah-wah pedal, and that was that.
Do you have a favorite soundtrack that you worked on in the 70s? Which one and why that one?
I actually didn’t do that many soundtracks. A lot of the soundtrack material that people know me for is songs that were taken from albums, like for example the songs that were in Hell Up In Harlem came from album tracks. I did do quite a few cues for the SWAT TV show, dramatic cues and things like that but generally speaking I didn’t do that much film work. I did a fair amount of TV work though, for things like Midnight Special and In Concert.
Do you have a favorite memory of your first appearance on Soul Train?
I knew Don Cornelius from when he was a DJ in Chicago, and I had done a concert with him at McCormack Place. When Soul Train was happening of course Scorpio was moving up the charts, and they’d said to me that they wanted to have me on the show. For that show, bands were mostly lip synching to their records when they were on, but I actually brought the whole band in and performed live. It was a packed house, and they told me, “When we told the kids you’d be here, we had about 25% more kids show up than we could fit.” The whole thing was really fun. We actually ended up playing on that show twice.
As a country music fan, did you ever have an opportunity over the years to ever work with one of your heroes in that genre? Who would you have most liked to work with and why?
When I first started, I was a big Hank Williams fan, and also Johnny Cash of course. I played on my first country rockabilly record when I was 15. You can actually hear that one on YouTube. It’s called I’m Gone with Vic Gallon. You can hear me do two rockabilly solos on that one. The only other chance I really had to do anything like country was when I did an album of Hank Williams songs with Del Shannon.
Please tell me a story about working with Ringo Starr on Goodnight Vienna. What was that experience like?
Ringo was a very nice guy. We did a very typical LA all-night session for that album, and I didn’t get to spend much time with him. A few weeks later though, I was in the High Sierras on horseback, and I got a call from my answering service saying that Richard Perry, the producer, wanted some more guitar work. So I came back and got to the studio, and it was just me and Ringo because Richard was about an hour late to the session. So Ringo got to hear all about my trip to the Sierras! He was an extremely nice guy. I tried not to ask too much about the Beatles and all that because I’m sure he’s talked enough about them, but it was a good conversation. We just sat there shooting the breeze till Richard showed up in his Bentley.
Of all the records you produced in the 1970s, which one was your favorite and why?
It always comes down to ‘Scorpio,’ because that’s my signature song, and it has endured for all this time. Frank Sinatra I believe once said that if an artist has one song, that people know immediately and associate with them, that’s a pretty good measure of success, and Scorpio has always been that song for me. There’s Black Belt Jones, and of course all the Motown material, and Taurus and everything, but Scorpio has always been the one for me, and of course it’s had a new life through all of the samples, which is great.