Soul Serenade: Dennis Coffey, “Scorpio”

Written by Ken Shane's Soul Serenade, Music

Legendary studio guitarist Dennis Coffey had a hit of his own in ’71

Dennis Coffey

Session musicians often toil in obscurity. People hear the hit records and become fans of the artists whose names are on them without ever knowing the names of the musicians who created the sound that they love. In recent years however, session players have finally been getting their due. There have been acclaimed documentaries about the Wrecking Crew — who were behind hundreds of hits recorded in Los Angeles in the ’60s, the Swampers — the crew that played on all the soul hits that came out of Muscle Shoals, and the Funk Brothers — the unsung heroes behind all of those Motown hits. Despite that recent notoriety, there are still hundreds of studio musicians who remain unsung despite their contributions.

One way for a studio musician to become known was to record under his own name. Musicians who started in the studio and became stars in their own right include Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, who were both part of the Wrecking Crew, and Darlene Love, who was a successful background singer before making it on her own.

Dennis Coffey is a Detroit guy. He began his career as a guitar player in groups like the Royaltones, a band that not only had some regional hits, but also played on recording sessions with artists like Del Shannon. By the late ’60s, Coffey was the hot guitar player in town, playing on hits like the Reflections “Just Like Romeo and Juliet,” and Darrell Banks “Open the Door to Your Heart.”

Dennis Coffey

Photo courtesy of Clarence Avant – Interior Music Corp.

The legendary Motown bass player James Jamerson heard what Coffey was doing, and recommended him to producer Norman Whitfield. The next thing you know, Coffey was a Funk Brother. He played the innovative guitar parts on smash hits like the Whitfield-produced “Cloud Nine,” “Ball of Confusion,” and “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations. That’s Coffey you hear on Edwin Starr’s “War,” “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne, and Diana Ross and the Supremes “Someday, We’ll Be Together.”

In the early ’70s Coffey set out to make it on his own as an artist and producer. He and his partner Mike Theodore hooked up with Sussex Records owner Clarence Avant. At Sussex they wrote songs and arrangements, and produced hit records. Among their successes were Gallery’s hit single “Nice to Be With You.” While at Sussex the pair would produce two albums for Sixto Rodriguez who, although initially ignored, has had a career resurgence in recent years, spurred in no small part by the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man.

One of the teams biggest hits came from Coffey’s second solo album, his first for Sussex. “Scorpio” was not only a million-seller, and a funk classic, it also became an important record in the development of hip-hop. Coffey didn’t stop playing sessions though, and you can hear him playing on hits like “Boogie Fever” by the Sylvers. Over the years he’s played on records for Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and others.

When Coffey was gaining fame in the studio in the late ’60s, he was spending his nights playing live gigs in Detroit clubs as part of the Lyman Woodard Trio, which included organist Woodard, and drummer Melvin Davis. The trio began playing in 1966 at a place called Frolic Show Bar. By the following year they had decamped for a long-term residency at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge.

“We played there once a week and always packed the house,” Coffey said. “Much of our audience was middle to upper class folks who were judges, attorneys, businessmen and women who just loved listening to our brand of funk, jazz, rock and soul. I even hooked up a strobe light to the stage and would hit the switch that shut off the main lights. The strobe would go off while we’d jam on stage. It blew their minds!”

What wasn’t widely known until recently was that some of these shows were recorded using studio quality equipment. When word of these recordings reached Resonance Records, it was decided that the public needed to hear the music.

“Right off the bat I was intrigued and felt compelled to release these recordings and tell the story of Dennis Coffey, who is to me one of the unsung heroes of guitar,” said Resonance producer Zev Feldman.

Hot Coffey in the D: Burnin’ at More Baker’s Showplace Lounge was released on vinyl in November. On January 17, 2017, Resonance Records will release CD and digital versions.