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
So Coffey and crew pieced together a polished album that showcases his dexterity and chops, how he plays well enough to make heads turn and jaws drop, pretty much better than anyone, so to speak. It also reveals an in-touchness, not only in how the songs sound but the contemporary musician who played and sang on them.
Guest singers include Scottish pop star Paolo Nutini, Lisa Kekaula of the Bellrays, Kings Go Forth, and fellow Michigan stars Mayer Hawthorne, Mick Collins, and the Detroit Cobras' Rachel Nagy. The result is a handful of new compositions like the fiery instrumental tune "7th Galaxy" or "Plutoniuos" mixed with new versions of older Coffey originals that are infused with a shot of fresh blood. For instance, singer Nutini intones a version of the hard-grinding "Only Good for Conversation," which is actually a song by the Detroiter Rodriguez. (You'll note that Coffey, along with Mike Theodore, produced a hunk of Rodriguez's now-classic album, Cold Fact. And that, despite how no musicians were credited on Cold Fact, every electric guitar part was played by Coffey.)
Coffey co-manager Chris Peters says the plan wasn't to "bring in the original artists from all of Dennis' old songs but rather to show how his work has been a big influence on younger artists as well.
"We want people to remember him for his Motown work," he continues, "but also point to these other things that he did with his career as well, reminding people of all this great, lesser-known stuff that he did. Like bringing in Mayer Hawthorne to sing a Parliament song ['All Your Goodies are Gone']. Most people don't know that Dennis played on the first Funkadelic record."
Coffey and Hawthorne have actually built a relationship over the past year and a half and respect each other considerably. Hawthorne says they connected when "Dennis needed some vocals for his album, and I needed some guitar for mine, so it was a great situation. He's a true professional in the studio. Most of the time I didn't even have to give him any direction — we just hit the 'record' button. I stayed for an extra hour after the session just to hear him tell some Motown stories."
Coffey is featured on Hawthorne's new album, How Do You Do?, which is out this week. "He's gonna go far ... the kid is really talented and dedicated," Coffey says of Hawthorne.
If having Hawthorne and younger musicians on the record is a smart move, partnering Coffey with popular Detroit funk-soul outfit Will Sessions Band was genius.
Headed by trumpeter and ace bandleader Sam Beaubien, the Will Sessions Band cut its teeth playing funk licks in the Detroit underground scene for years, so seeing the two entities work together makes sense. Earlier this year, Coffey lugged his guitar and bones into the Majestic for a Funk Night with Will Sessions and played well into the early morning in front of a room packed with twentysomething revelers.
So Beaubien with Will Sessions backed Coffey for the bulk of the year when he toured domestically, playing dates in the Midwest, South, and on the East Coast. (The Will Sessions' horn section also backed Coffey in the studio.) Unfortunately there wasn't enough money to fly the band overseas, so Dennis used Haggis Horns (who often played live with Amy Winehouse) while in London and Paris, but it's clear as crystal that, given the band's robust sound, Will Sessions is the best fit available.
"Dennis is such a veteran, he didn't complain once about all of the traveling," Beaubien says. "We're at Bonnaroo on the main stage, it's, like, 100 degrees and he didn't complain. I'm able to learn a lot just by watching him."
Many people know about the meteoric success that Coffey's "Scorpio" single on Sussex Records had back in the early 1970s (it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard magazine's Hot 100) and about the 1969's wild, freeflowing Hair and Thangs album, which gave Coffey a cultish funk following. The guys of Will Sessions grew up studying Coffey's funk breaks religiously long before they ever knew they'd get a chance to become part of his band.
Beaubien talks about how sweet it is to play music with one of his personal funk heroes. "For us, we weren't even born when Dennis made all those hit records. We had to find them on vinyl and learn them by ear. Now we play them all the time with Dennis. It's a lot of fun."
Hawthorne still owns multiple copies of "Scorpio" on 45 and considers it one of the best funk breaks of all time. Hip-hop producers and artists sampled Coffey's music widely in the '80s as well — often without his permission.
How did so many latch on to Coffey?
"Dennis Coffey is one of the founders of the funk," says DJ Houseshoes, who also has multiple copies of Coffey's material on wax. "His sound has influenced all generations that have come forth since the Motown era. I didn't truly realize that he had such a recognizable sound until Strut contacted me to do the promotional mix for the release of his [latest] album. From his own classics, to those he took part in as a session player, to the albums he produced, Dennis can touch on a wide range of emotion with his playing, yet still have the funk ingrained in every note he plays."
In a way, the pirated samples from Coffey's "Ride Sally Ride" off his 1972 album, Going for Myself, which was sampled by LL Cool J, Ultramagnetic MCs, Compton's Most Wanted and DJ Qbert among others, helped keep his name in the streets, even as Coffey was taking a 20-year break from music and working full-time in the auto industry. At first, Coffey didn't understand the hip-hop sampling tradition of choosing to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.
"My middle son, James, he came back to me, he was listening to a lot of hip hop, and he laid out 20 songs — boom-boom-boom — that had sampled my music. It wasn't in the liner notes. He just heard it 'cause he knew my stuff. My son James made a cassette of all my songs. And because he was listening to all my songs, he knew them. So he heard this hip-hop back in, like, '86 and was like, 'Dad, this came from "Scorpio," this came from "Theme From Black Belt Jones," this is from "Getting it On,"' and I called Clarence Avant who owned the copyrights to all the Sussex stuff. So I said, 'What do you think about this? These guys are clearly using our stuff.' He said, 'You know what? Let me talk to the other label presidents. The last thing we want to do is have everyone suing each other. So let me see if we can find a way for those guys to start paying.' And then I started getting royalty checks. I started getting paid."
"It's funny," Coffey continues. "I ran into Chuck D. At the R&B Foundation Awards, I got a Funk Brother Pioneer award, and Chuck D was there. And I said, 'Chuck, I don't remember you paying me for this and that,' and he said, 'Aw, man, we knew who you guys were. We just didn't have the money from our label so we ended up sampling you. We thought you'd sue the label and get some money that way.'"
These days, Coffey isn't as rich as he could be, but he lives in Farmington with his wife of four years (she also used to work at Motown) and says he's living mostly comfortable. He's three weeks shy of his 71st birthday and says he doesn't have any health complications except for the need to watch his diet. As for his last true health scare: "When I was 13, my appendix ruptured and I almost died," he says. "Other than that, I'm alright."
He plans to keep playing music as long as his body will allow him. His former bandmate from the Lyman Woodard Trio and longtime friend, Melvin Davis, says he's not shocked in the slightest that Coffey is still at it. "There aren't many of us that are still going," Davis says, "but I'm not surprised that Dennis is one of them. It's all well-deserved as he's worked hard for many years. ... Nobody can deny that Dennis plays the hell out of that guitar."
Coffey says he's preparing for a follow-up album, and the owner of Strut Records hopes to work with Coffey again. There's no question that Coffey has another record in him. Hell, he brags about family genes and that his mother's sister could still play piano at the age of 96 without mistakes.
"I played with Les Paul when he was 93. I saw Andrés Segovia play at 92, so I figure I'll keep on going. I still practice two hours a day and I'm still growing. I'm dedicated to playing guitar and that's the way it's going to be."
Dennis Coffey featuring Will Sessions appears Friday, Oct. 21 at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave.,Ferndale; 248-544-3030. The Bo-Keys support. Doors: 8 p.m.; $15.
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