MARTIN BANDYKE, FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER
A seriously gifted guitarist with an instantly recognizable style, Funk Brother Dennis Coffey will receive major kudos Friday night at the 20th annual Detroit Music Awards. Best-known for the psychedelic riffs he brought to late-Detroit-era Motown hits for artists like the Supremes and Temptations, Coffey will receive a Distinguished Achievement award at the event, which takes place at the Fillmore Detroit. Other distinguished honorees are radio station WRIF-FM (101.1), rappers Insane Clown Posse and polka-parodists the Polish Muslims.
Coffey’s signature use of distortion, echo and wah-wah effects is memorably heard on Motown hits like “Ball of Confusion” and “Cloud Nine,” and his incendiary 1971 instrumental “Scorpio” was also a best-seller. The DMA recognition represents some particularly sweet timing for Coffey, who is releasing a new, self-titled album on April 26 that features guest vocalists Mayer Hawthorne, the Dirtbombs’ Mick Collins and others.
(Hawthorne is also expected to join Coffey and his band on stage at the Fillmore on Friday.)
Coffey talked to the Free Press about his recent burst of activity, the new album, some Motown memories and more:
QUESTION: How did the new album come together?
ANSWER: I’m into the second year of my management contract with my team — Al Sutton, Chris Fuller and Chris Peters — so we’ve been working at it for a while. It was recorded at Rust Belt Studios (in Royal Oak), which is owned by Al, and it was my first time there.
The way I usually write songs is to just get my acoustic guitar and sit in the basement and tinker around until something starts showing up. So I wrote some tunes and did a basic demo of the songs — drum machine, bass, rhythm guitar — then I went back to Al and he bounced them off the other guys on the team.
I probably wrote 30 or even 40 songs or licks or whatever, and we finished about five or six songs. They picked the best three, sent them around to (record) labels, and also got me a gig at the Meltdown festival (in London) last summer. The next day after that show, we met with Quinton Scott, the president of Strut Records, and we ended up getting a deal with Strut worldwide on the basis of those three songs.
My team worked with the record company to figure out what the balance of original songs and cover songs would be. This was the first time I didn’t produce one of my own solo albums. Al produced it along with Eric Hoegemeyer, who works for him at the studio.
Al asked me if I had any guitars from back in the day, and I said that I still had my Gibson Firebird that I used on all the Motown sessions. So I brought it in and that’s what we used. There’s so many hits in the DNA of that guitar that maybe it just does it by itself.
Q: Was it difficult to give up the reins and not produce the album yourself?
A: I had confidence in my team and we were certainly going for a younger vibe, so I let them pick the musicians and songs for the sessions. I still consider myself a student of the guitar, so I practice a couple hours a day and that keeps me plenty busy. It takes a lot of time to write songs and record an album, and I actually spent more time on this album without producing it than on an album I was producing.
Q: What guitar players did you admire growing up?
A: The first guy I heard who knocked me out was Chuck Berry. I heard him playing “Maybellene” and I thought, ‘What in the world is the man doing?’ The only way I learned Chuck Berry was by spending eight hours a day when I wasn’t in school learning stuff off records. No one knew how to teach that because rock ’n’ roll was (still) being born.
Then I listened to Elvis, with Scotty Moore, and then James Burton with Ricky Nelson, then it went through to B.B. King and T-Bone Walker.
Q: Was your trademark guitar sound accepted by Motown from the very beginning?
A: (Bassist) James Jamerson and (songwriter-producer) Hank Cosby called me up to be part of a Motown producers workshop upstairs at (Detroit’s) Golden World Studio. Jamerson would run the band. The purpose of the workshop was to give these producers a little more time to experiment because they were getting rushed in the studio doing three-hour sessions.
They started that up, and within three weeks, Norman Whitfield, producer for the Temptations, came in and brought in an arrangement for a song called “Cloud Nine,” which he wanted to experiment with. For that intro figure, I just happened to have in my kit a wah-wah pedal I was using on a gig with Melvin Davis and Lyman Woodard. So I pulled that out and put in on the intro to “Cloud Nine.” Norman heard that and said, “That’s what I’m looking for.”
Norman was a visionary; he singlehandedly started to take Motown from the love song and story song to the social consciousness songs. He used me to help get there because I was doing psychedelic jazz. Lyman Woodard and Melvin Davis and I were so out there we’d open for the MC5 at the Grande Ballroom, but we were still doing jazz clubs like the Frolic.
So once Norman heard that, every time I came in, he’d book me for sessions with the Temptations on “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion” and “Friendship Train” with Gladys (Knight). He’d just say, “Whaddya got?” and I’d pull out a different effect.
Q: Your music has been heavily sampled by other artists. Have you always gotten paid?
A: I did start getting paid eventually. My middle son, James, was listening to a lot of hip-hop and pointed out 20 songs on other artists’ CDs which sampled song after song of mine. I called Clarence Avant — he was the chairman of the board of Motown in New York at the time. He said, “I’m going to talk to the other label presidents and start making sure you guys start getting money for this.” He did that and I started getting money, and I noticed I started getting writing credits on songs I didn’t write, so I knew they were due to the use of my samples.