This Detroit funk legend and obscure guitar hero grew tired of standing in the shadows, so he staged a mighty comeback
Published: October 12, 2011
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licks a thousand times — probably more — but like the majority of the Funk Brothers, the quality of his work has always superseded his appearance.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.
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