An Interview with Dennis Coffey
Words by Ben Solis © The Washtenaw Voice
Photos by Greg Molitor (ReMIND Photography)
Dennis Coffey is one of the great unsung heroes of Motown Records. But even legends need backup plans. Luckily for Coffey, he had two.
Unable to land a new record deal in 1985, Coffey went to work on the assembly lines of General Motors. Moving up the ladder in the auto industry and graduating from Wayne State University with a master’s degree in intstructional technology, Coffey became a consultant for both GM and Ford Motor Company.
But when the auto industry took a turn for the worse, Coffey returned to his first love of music and ran with it for the second time.
Sitting over a cup of coffee in the heart of Detroit’s theater district, the 70-year-old guitarist and native Detroiter said it was all about survival.
“I had to do what I had to do to feed my family,” Coffey said, about an hour before he was to take the stage before a packed house at the Majestic Theatre. “If you stay in music for too long and it isn’t making you money anymore, it becomes really hard to do.
“I figured I can ride the horse until it’s dead, or I can get off. And that’s what I did.”
Now, after a 22-year recording hiatus and a break from touring, the session guitarist and Funk Brothers alum is again in full swing. Supported by Motor City Funk Night house band Will Sessions for four North American dates, Coffey is back on the road and is set to release a brand-new, self-titled album on April 25.
Brought together through their management teams, Sessions founder and band leader Sam Beaubien said it was all a matter of chance.
“I was hired to arrange horn parts for his new album, and his management heard all our music and liked what we did,” said the 28-year-old trumpeter.
The result is a dream gig.
“It’s amazing,” Tim Shellabarger, bass player and co-founder of Sessions, said before their first gig on Feb. 21. “The guy was in the Funk Brothers, one of the all-time greatest backup bands in music — and now we’re backing him.”
This is nothing new for the eight-piece band, which has backed underground hip-hop heavyweights like Guilty Simpson, Black Milk, Phat Kat and Slum Village in both the studio and live settings.
Described by their fans as the grimy, groovy love-child of James Brown’s The JB’s and soul icons Tower of Power, Sessions’ collaboration with the Motown legend is a piece of local history that has come full circle.
Beginning his musical career in 1955, Coffey played on his first recording session when he was only 15. Quickly gaining respect in the community as a solid session player, he was eventually introduced to Henry “Hank” Crosby, one of Motown’s key songwriters and producers.
“I was introduced to Hank by Motown bassist James Jamerson,” recalled Coffey. “He offered me a retainer to be in his band, and that’s how I got hooked up with those guys.”
From then on, Coffey played on a countless number of Motown hits, including his memorable work on The Temptations songs such as “Ball of Confusion,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Just My Imagination” and “Cloud Nine.”
Coffey was fundamental in moving Motown’s sound forward. Relying heavily on Echoplex tape-loop devices, wah-wah pedals and amp-driven distortion, Coffey’s style and approach changed the way soul music was played.
“Norman Whitfield came into the studio one day and pulled the chart from ‘Cloud Nine’ and said, ‘I need something to perk this up,’” said Coffey. “I pulled out my wah pedal and showed it to him, and he said that was it.”
However, Coffey never took the credit for it, saying that it was Whitfield who was the real genius.
Whitfield, another of Motown’s producers, would come in each day and ask Coffey what new toy he had to add new sounds to new songs. It was this forward-thinking production style that helped to usher in Motown’s late-era formula.
And according to “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” a documentary about the famous session group, certain members of the Funk Brothers were unhappy about not being credited for their work. This, Coffey said, was something that never bothered him.
“Motown took good care of us,” he said. “If you watch the documentary about us, all of those nice cars and Cadillacs? Those were ours.
“They knew who the real talent was, and as long as they knew that, it was alright with me.”
But Coffey admits that he had one advantage that the other players didn’t — complete independence from Motown.
Wanting to remain his own boss and maintain his creative freedom, Coffey said that he never signed a contract with the label. When Barry Gordy, Motown’s founder and CEO, tried to make him sign, Coffey refused.
“They told me that if I didn’t sign their contract, I didn’t have a job,” he explained. “So I said, ‘OK, see you later.’
“Funny thing was that two weeks later they told me to come back into the studio and lay down a track.”
Releasing most of his solo material throughout the 1970’s on overseas record labels such as Sussex, and Detroit-based Westbound, Coffey hit it big with the song “Scorpio,” which even gave him the honor of being the first white artist to appear on the television show Soul Train.
Not surprisingly, Coffey’s influence stretches past Motown music. Many of Coffey’s tunes have been fodder for samples in hip-hop since the inception of the art form, including songs by LL Cool J and Public Enemy.
After years of career changes, “bars, guitars and Motown superstars,” which coincidentally happens to be the title of his 2004 memoir, Coffey said that his love of playing has yet to fade.
“I’m still out there, and I’m having a lot of fun with it,” he said. “People seem to think that playing this kind of music or the guitar is really simple, but it’s really complex. Even I’m still learning it every day.”
And with the backing of Sessions, Coffey is able to explore and exhibit his art to a whole new generation of fans who would have never heard his music. And still, Coffey is quick to emphasize that it wasn’t boredom with the industry that made him leave the guitar behind so many years ago and turn from guitars to cars.
“Sure, I was sick of the rat-race and being out in Los Angeles and New York all the time, but I left it because I needed to feed my family,” explained Coffey. “Even when I was with Ford and GM, I still made time to go and show up at the clubs and play.”
For Dennis Coffey, it was always about the music — the backup plan … to his backup plan.