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
Forty-five minutes later, the museum tour culminates inside Motown's hallowed Studio A. Coffey strolls in cooler than a breeze and addresses the 25 or so gathered. He points out where he placed his famous wah-wah pedals and guitar effects every afternoon, cranking out a tune an hour, five days a week for the bosses at Motown. He reminisces about what those emotionally grueling sessions in this hot-box were really like.
The sightseers are surprised, some look at each other as if realizing at that very moment that a living Funk Brother is in their presence, showing them how all those life-altering records were made. This is a rare, one-off Coffey appearance at Motown, a chance to entertain his U.K. visitors.
He talks of immortals, such as bassist James Jamerson and drummer Pistol Allen, and where they'd position themselves.
"Jamerson sat here, Uriel Jones and Pistol Allen sat over there, [Bob] Babbitt used to sit right here."
The Motown fans try to not to let their heads spin: Here's this guitarist who's comfortable and relaxed standing in the very spot where he plugged in his guitar and headed the rhythm section on songs for the Temptations, Diana Ross, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, the Spinners and a mountain of other Motown acts. The fans understand now how he wasn't so relaxed then, recording hit songs on deadline directly to tape without rehearsal.
Coffey finishes his little history lesson and wins resounding applause.
This is more than some old guy recalling his glory days working at a record label that pumped music out assembly-line style. Think of it: His guitar notes are engrained in the DNA of most Americans over the age of 25, whether they realize it or not. And those are merely a fraction of the marquee songs Coffey played on during his Motown time in Detroit and Los Angeles backing up the stars. His riffs and signature licks for artists such as the Floaters' "Float On," the Supremes' "Someday We'll Be Together," the Four Tops' "Still Waters Run Deep," the Spinners' "It's a Shame" and the Dramatics' "In the Rain" are powerful enough to make him a legend among soul music purists, certainly. Forget that his wah-wah guitar on Temptations hits such as "Psychedelic Shack" and "Cloud 9" were not only innovations, but they ushered in a new era of soul and R&B guitar playing. This is without even touching his funked-up solo career as a frontman with the Detroit Guitar Band or his short-lived sting with Lyman Woodard.
How did he manage to be involved in so many key sessions over the years?
"I was a free agent back then and it had its advantages," Coffey says with a smile. "When things were really cooking, I was doing double sessions with Motown every day. I'd take a break, then do the producer's workshop with [famed songwriting and producing trio] Holland-Dozier-Holland and crank out stuff for Hot Wax and Invictus until two in the morning, and then could do something with Muscle Shoals or Stax or whoever as I pleased. So for a lot of the key songs of that era, I got calls to play on this stuff because I was never under an exclusive contract with Motown like a lot of the other guys. I just did the sessions."
Coffey's sitting inside of some old offices at Motown Records, but it's not easy pulling old stories out of him. Sure, the guitarist can rattle off tales that are so rich in history you sometimes wonder why he'd talk of anything else. Like the one about being in the studio with Berry Gordy, or watching Stevie Wonder play drums on the Spinners' "It's a Shame" — because "nobody else could hear the notes." But Coffey already wrote a book of those tales, 2004's Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars, that can walk you through his glory days of yesteryear. Turns out Coffey isn't living in a past reality. He's here. He's living in the here and now. He hopes others are too.
Recorded at Rust Belt Studios in Royal Oak (often home to Kid Rock, the Detroit Cobras and others), Coffey spent the bulk of last year piecing together an album that a music label like Strut could market to the masses. In order for that to happen, Coffey is savvy enough to recognize that a team needed to be put together. Producer Al Sutton, Rust Belt's owner, brought in Chris Peters (formerly of Electric Six) and Chris Fuller to manage Coffey and give him the freedom to simply focus on creating the music and nothing else.
"You know what happened, this is the first time that I didn't have to be the producer on my own album," Coffey says with a sigh that explains how taxing it'd been in the past. "I'm usually in charge of everything — from finding artists, creating material, recording it, mastering it, and so on. With this album, my management picked the musicians, they picked the singers, I wrote a bunch of songs and they took care of the rest."
As he thinks harder about what other stars aligned to make everything work out, he can't help but remember one key financial advantage.
"What was also crucial was that Al Sutton said, 'Let's just work as long and as hard as possible. ...' I've worked harder on this album than any album I've ever done. It's because, normally, when I was with Mike Theodore [his ex-production partner], we'd get budgeted for 10 songs, and you got 10 songs. That's how we rolled. With this particular thing, I could work hard on the small parts, and it paid off."
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