Coffey had the good fortune of being born and raised in Detroit when it was the sound of young America. By the time he landed at Motown in 1968, Coffey had served in the 101st Airborne (like Jimi Hendrix) and played in a rock band called The Royaltones, which backed Del Shannon. He started in Motown's "Producer's Workshop," a kind of farm team for the label located in Studio B where producers could try out ideas before recording them with the big leaguers. When Norman Whitfield came in to workshop "Cloud Nine," Coffey showed him how to get the psychedelic sound Whitfield was looking for by using a wah-wah pedal. Two weeks later, Coffey was in Studio A with his wah, recording the song at Whitfield's session.
Around this time, Coffey also worked at Stax (Johnnie Taylor, The Dramatics), Muscle Shoals (Wilson Pickett) and Invictus (Chairman Of The Board, Freda Payne). His first solo album, Hair And Thangs, was released in 1968 with his cover of the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing" released as a single. It did well in Michigan, but his breakthrough as a solo artist came with "Scorpio," a stinging funk-soul masterpiece on his second album, Evolution, in 1971. That track has been sampled over 100 times.
Oh, he also discovered Sixto Rodriguez, and along with Mike Theodore, produced his 1970 debut album, Cold Fact, the one with "Sugar Man."
At 78, Coffey keeps a regular gig at Northern Lights Lounge in Detroit and remains in demand as a session man, producer and live performer. On March 29, his album Live At Baker's, recorded in 2006 at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, will be released. One of the selections is a jazz-inflected, nine-minute version of "Scorpio."
Dennis Coffey: Yeah, they did. I think that was Ed Wolfrum. He set up the microphones and he had a van in the back of the bar where he put his equipment. He came in and recorded the night and that was it.
Songfacts: Can you talk about your approach to a live performance with a band? I'm trying to get a sense for how you go about planning out the songs and how your musicians know where to go.
Coffey: I gather a book full of chord sheets so they know the basic chords to any song that I call. In the club where I play in every Tuesday night, I just pick out songs that I want to do, and they've got the book in front of them and I just call them out. We organically just do them, and we never do a song the same way twice. We have fun with it.
Songfacts: Early in your career, you talked a lot about finding your own style. How would you describe the style that you found?
Coffey: You know what? I kinda leave that to others, because my style keeps changing. You know it's me playing, but sometimes I do jazz stuff, sometimes I do funk, sometimes I do different things. It's always my style but I have a lot of different genres because as a studio player, I learned to do all that.
Songfacts: Yeah, you have to be very durable. Can you talk about how you went from the R&B sound to the psychedelic sound to disco?
Coffey: Well, the R&B sound, early on I had a friend, Joe Podorsek, who owned Capitol Music. He got all these new pedals and all this stuff from manufacturers to sell in his store, so he'd always let me take these things out and try them on gigs. I was back then working with Lyman Woodard and Melvin Davis, so I had four nights a week I was working at one club. I had access to a live audience all the time, and they weren't dancing, they were sitting and listening. So, that's how I started off on that journey to try stuff and just play it for people. That's how it evolved.
Songfacts: But in terms of the guitar sound, what did you do to get the psychedelic sound other than effects pedals?
Coffey: Well, that was the whole psychedelic sound. It was fuzz tone, for instance, which wasn't commonly used up until then. And it was a wah-wah pedal that just started coming in via Hendrix and Clapton, and then I added an echo thing to it that was not used.
I used an Echoplex on "In the Rain" with The Dramatics, which was probably the first time that effect was used on an R&B record.
Songfacts: So it wasn't necessarily different chords that you were playing or different notes, it was more of what was being processed on those sounds.
Coffey: Yeah. Psychedelic kind of evolved out of the Haight-Ashbury thing, that era. That's when we were doing the fuzz tone stuff.
I had strobe lights on the stage at Morey Baker's. It was like a piano bar, so I'd be out there with a trio and in the middle of a song I would have somebody flick the lights off and would turn the strobe lights on and the fuzz tone would go crazy. The people sitting in front of me, they wouldn't know what to do.
Songfacts: And then what did you do to get the disco sound?
Coffey: I attended a few disco conventions that Billboard put on with Mike Theodore, so I realized that was going to be a force to be reckoned with. I really studied that genre and figured out what made it tick, and the result of that was "Devil's Gun," which we did with CJ & Co. It was a #1 disco record in the country.
Songfacts: What did make disco tick?
Coffey: Disco was kind of a dance record - you had a lot of breakdowns and you had a certain drum thing that went with it - it was either the kick drum on 1, 2, 3 and 4 or later on when Quincy Jones was doing Michael Jackson, they were doing the kick drum on the second and fourth beat.
But, it had a lot of breakdowns and a lot of instrumental sections. Tom Moulton was doing some mixdowns of our raw tracks and he specifically copied things and edited things and made them so that they were for the dancers.
Songfacts: Did you have to adapt your guitar style to that?
Coffey: No, I just did what I did. On "Devil's Gun" or one of those songs, I'm doing a Wes Montgomery funk solo in the middle of it. That did not come from disco, that just came from something I felt like putting in there.
Songfacts: When you did "War," did you know what the song was about?
Coffey: I just saw the title on the page. I did so many sessions for Norman Whitfield at Motown and Norman liked me because the first session I did for him was "Cloud Nine" and I put that wah-wah pedal on there.
Norman wanted to change the sound of Motown, and I was the guy that helped him do it. He wanted to get into that protest and social consciousness stuff, so I did that fuzz tone thing up high on "War." But I started that with "Cloud Nine," so Norman had me doing it on "Psychedelic Shack" and I did that intro on "Ball of Confusion."
And we never did overdubs at Motown. We did one song an hour, each on a new chart we never saw before, with no mistakes. We made one song an hour and made them hits, and I created those intros on the fly on the front of the song.
Songfacts: That's pretty incredible that you had the ability to do that, but I guess that's what made Motown, Motown.
Coffey: Yeah, the Funk Brothers was the best rhythm section that I've ever played with. We did it every day, the same guys. You get real good at it if you're doing it every day.
Songfacts: What did you think of the way the stereo separation was done with those records?
Coffey: You know, I didn't mix them and I didn't spend a lot of time listening to things that I had done other than the day I was in the studio. If the producer and the writer were happy with what I'd done, I'd just move on to the next song, so I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about how they mixed or how they panned or how they created their studio images in the mixdowns and everything. But when Mike Theodore and myself did Rodriguez and we did CJ & Co. and Jim Gold And The Gallery and all that stuff, we did all that on our own. We used to mix a lot at Criteria down in Miami.
Mike Theodore and I produced that stuff so we had control over everything, but if I was a studio guy at Motown, Norman Whitfield did all that.
Songfacts: Was there one Motown song that really struck you when you heard it back for the first time?
Coffey: If you listen to "Cloud Nine" by The Temptations, which was the first session I did at Motown, it's kicking major ass. That groove was so funky it's amazing.
Songfacts: You talked about Rodriguez. You did the Cold Fact album. Can you talk about the specific track "Sugar Man" and recording that?
Coffey: On "Sugar Man," we took some tracks from other songs we had and played them backwards. We put them behind there, and that's where that weird sound comes from.
Rodriguez was interesting because Mike Theodore and I discovered him. There'd be no Rodriguez story without us. He was so shy we had to take him in the studio by himself and record four songs and build a band around him. After that, he got comfortable recording with the band.
When we first saw him play, he used to play with his face to the wall. We thought, What is this guy doing?
Songfacts: Do you have any idea what the "Silver Magic Ships" were?
Coffey: No. [laughs] I do not know.
Songfacts: You wrote a couple of songs on that album, including one called "Hate Street Dialogue." It's spelled H-A-T-E, but I imagine it's a San Francisco reference.
Coffey: Yeah. Gary Harvey was a co-writer on that. He'd come up with a lot of the lyrics. He was an additional writer that we had that was a friend of ours.
Songfacts: That was a pretty striking song because it was really very dark, with the "twisted hate street's hanging tree." Was that something you were going for?
Coffey: You know, it was all organic. Rodriguez had that kind of darkness, and I think that particular line came from him.
Songfacts: There are certain songs you worked on that got overdubbed with strings and horns. A good example is "Someday We'll Be Together." When you're in the studio doing something like that, do you have any idea what it's going to sound like in the end?
Coffey: No. On that song, I'm doing the vibrato sound with the guitar and then I switch to backbeats later on. They had good arrangers at Motown, like Paul Riser or David Van DePitte. So, when you go into the studio, there's usually the arranger and the producer. We would have the charts in front of us, so we would have to read the chart correctly first and then they kind of massaged it based upon us playing licks for them that they liked and stuff like that, so that's how that went.
I had no idea what was going to be over it. They'd record 11 of us, that was the rhythm section. That was the foundational thing - the songs never came to life until we put our hands on them. All you had behind that as the producers and writers was an idea, and you had the Funk Brothers bring it all to fruition, then everything else was done on top of what we'd laid down. Then they would come in and do horns and strings on another day, probably horns by themselves, and then they'd probably come in and do strings and then they would also overdub the lead vocalist, then they'd overdub the background vocalist, and then they would mix it down to 2-track.
Songfacts: Are all 11 of you playing at the same time?
Coffey: Oh yeah, most of the time. Well, Norman was very good at breakdowns, but on records without a breakdown, we'd all be playing at the same time. If one guy made a mistake, they had to stop the tape. So you wouldn't want to be that guy too many times.
Songfacts: What do you mean by a breakdown?
Coffey: In the middle of "Scorpio" you can hear a breakdown. It breaks down to just congas and maybe a couple of drums, and then suddenly different pieces are added to it and it builds back up to the full section.
Songfacts: So when you were in the studio, how would you know when the breakdown was coming and who was supposed to play on it?
Coffey: You know what? I learned a lot of the breakdown stuff because Norman was always doing that. He'd stand in front of the drummers. He wouldn't be in the control room, he'd be right in the studio in front of the drummers. That's because he felt that groove all the time. So, he would just break things down and say, "Okay when I give you the cue, I want to break it down to just the two drummers" and everybody would do it. Then he'd say, "When I point to you, you come in" and that's how he did that.
I did that with "Scorpio" when I broke it down. I was playing guitar and Bob Babbitt was on bass. I had Earl Van Dyke and I had Pistol - I had the Funk Brothers in there with me. They had a breakdown and I decided to give Babbitt a bass solo and he just did an incredible bass solo. Then I cued them back in and away we went.
Songfacts: You really spread the love on that song. You were the guitarist, but that bass breakdown and the congas are riding so high.
Coffey: Yeah, that was "Bongo" Eddie, and Jack Ashford was doing tambourine. Even though I was the artist and I was a guitarist, once I got with Theodore, we had to put on our production hats and I became a producer.
I cut out five bars of my own piece in there. I cut it out and threw it on the floor at RCA in New York because it was interfering with the groove.
Songfacts: How did you get the guitar intro on that song?
Coffey: I wrote it out. That whole thing started when I bought a new Sony Sound On Sound, which was a new tape recorder thing where I could overlay guitar parts. And because Mike Theodore and I were doing a lot of orchestration by then - we were doing horns and strings all the time - I said, "what would happen if I did a guitar band approach?"
So I overdubbed fuzz tone guitars doing string and horn kind of parts. I wrote 10 songs and I overdubbed those kinds of parts on my little tape recorder. I played them for Mike Theodore and he says, "I like that concept, I like the songs, let me ask Clarence [Avant, head of Sussex Records] if he wants to give us a deal and we'll go in and do it." And that's how that started.
Songfacts: How did you overlay the guitars?
Coffey: I had I think 12 guitars doing the lead. Myself, Joe Podorsek and Ray Monette wrote out the melody to "Scorpio" in three parts, like I would do in horn sections. So, I would have three guitars, each with their fuzz tone on to give it that horn sound, and I would have them playing like horns. I wrote out the charts for them, and I'd be playing rhythm and they'd be playing those parts. When I did the overdubs, I would play one part and Ray and Joe would play one part, so we were playing horn parts that I had previously written and we played them with fuzz tones on our guitars to sound like horns. Then I'd put a low part in with the bass, with the wah-wah pedal, and it would sound like a trombone, and that's kind of how we got that. There's like I think 10 guitars on the melody of "Scorpio."
Songfacts: There are also vocals that come in here and there during the song.
Coffey: They were by accident, and they weren't vocals, they were voices. What happened was, during that breakdown, "Bongo" Eddie and Jack Ashford started making comments during the groove. We had an overhead mic in the studio, so Mike said, "Leave that mic on, I like what's going on out there," because he was in the studio and I was out with the guys doing the rhythm tracks. Mike said, "Yeah, let them do that. I like that."
Songfacts: Did the song end up sounding like what you had in your head for it when you first started it?
Coffey: The groove, yeah pretty much. When I wrote the arrangement, I used minor seventh chords with flatted fifths and stuff like that. In fact, when Quincy Jones first heard that record, when Clarence played it for him a year before it came out, Quincy told Clarence that "Scorpio" would be a hit.
Songfacts: Did you know it was going to be a hit?
Coffey: I didn't know. That album was out for a year and didn't do squat, so I said, "well, time for a new album." So, I'm in recording another album with horns and strings because I figured no one cared about the guitar band, and then all of a sudden, I get a call from Ron Moseley, who was a national promoter out of Sussex in New York, and he says, "Man, I went in these dance clubs, and they're killing 'Scorpio.' So whatever you're doing in the studio now, stop it, because I'm going to resurface 'Scorpio' and we're going to run with it."
Songfacts: How did the song get its title?
Coffey: I don't know. I never wrote titles on my songs. I'd just write them and I'd say, song #3. When everything is said and done, I'd say, "What should I call this?" Well, I'm a Scorpio, so I said, "I'll just call it 'Scorpio.'"
Songfacts: Hmm. Did you play on "Float On" by the Floaters?
Coffey: When they did that song, I had brought my Echoplex because I started to help them as an arranger. They had their own guys in the band, and the guy in The Floaters was trying to imitate my part from "In the Rain," but he was trying to do it without an Echoplex and he couldn't do it. Luckily, I had my Echoplex, and I said, "Here's what you need to get what you're trying to do." So I plugged in my Echoplex and let him play his part.
Songfacts: It's interesting how the zodiac has followed you around.
Coffey: Yeah, it has.
Coffey: Not as a dance, but I know that it was a dance record. I didn't write it as a dance record, it just became one.
But I was playing in New York at an event I was hired to do at a hotel, and like 2,000 people showed up. We went in and did "Scorpio" and when I looked up they had formed a conga line of 2,000 people boogying towards the stage.
Songfacts: Some of the songs you are on, the guitar is in the mix somewhere, other times it's the foundation of the song, and one of those is "It's a Shame," a tremendous song by the Spinners. Can you talk about that session and what you did on that song?
Coffey: It's me and Eddie Willis doing that intro. I'm playing that figure because that was a written part for the arranger. So, we were the ones that did the introduction on "It's a Shame."
Songfacts: Did you ever go to a session and have the arranger or the producer ask for something you did on another song?
Coffey: No. One time I went out in LA, they wrote on the chart, 'Play like David T. Walker' and I said, "what's the matter, was he busy today?" I said, "I don't play like David T., you call him if you want him."
Songfacts: What was it like doing a P-Funk session?
Coffey: I did "I Wanna Testify" with George Clinton. That was his first hit, and we did that. Then on the first Funkadelic album, they just brought me in and had me overdub some stuff on it, so I wasn't there for the tracking, I just opened up guitar parts.
Songfacts: You have so many credits to your name. Is there one that stands out as some of your best work?
Coffey: It goes back to "Cloud Nine." And the intro I created for "Just My Imagination" has become an iconic guitar figure. It's pretty well-known because of that record.
Songfacts: What drew you to the song "Whole Lotta Love"? [Coffey covered the Led Zeppelin track on the Evolution album.]
Coffey: At that time I was listening to the psychedelic stuff and I just heard that by the original group. I said, "I think I'd like to do a version of that," so I did.
Songfacts: Early on, you did a very unusual cover of the Isley Brothers song "It's Your Thing." Can you talk about what you did on that song?
Coffey: I ended up playing my version of that song in a club with Lyman and Melvin and put a fuzz tone on it. I just thought it would be a good song to play on a gig and that's how that got started for that distortion approach that I took.
Skip Pitts and I played that at the New Orleans House of Blues when he came in there. He and I did duelling wah-wahs.
Songfacts: What could you do in the '60s and '70s that you cannot do today?
Coffey: Be younger :)
I tell you what, I'm doing exactly what I want to do. I'm cranking it up and we're doing all these breakdowns and extended solos and everything else, and we get into some different things every Tuesday night where I play on a regular basis. I've been at the same place - it's the Northern Lights Lounge in midtown Detroit. I've been there for 10 years now, every Tuesday night. The people keep showing up, so I keep getting paid, and I keep playing.
Songfacts: But in terms of recording, technology, studios, that kind of thing, was there anything that was going on in the '60s and '70s that you can't get today?
Coffey: Well, it was the equipment, first of all. It was recorded to tape, and usually the 24-track is what you'd use, but it was analog, it wasn't digital. So, that was that sound.
And we played all together. They don't do that anymore. They just start with a track and one guy at a time overdubs a part. Motown records sound so good because we were all playing together, so we all kind of bounced feels, and sometimes an idea would come off each other, so I always felt that the records sounded better because it was a combination of teamwork from excellent players that enjoyed working together and they all contributed to that output. The output was a combination of all their efforts, that's what made those records so good.
Songfacts: Well, I'm really surprised to hear that there were 11 people plus somebody like Norman Whitfield directing traffic there. Was there generally one musician like a bass player or somebody that you would have to look to for the changes or to know what to do next?
Coffey: No. Jamerson [bass player James Jamerson] was playing right across from me and we used to have three guitars on each session. They had two drummers, a keyboard player, and they had an organ player. Then they had congas and bongos and then you had Jack Brokensha playing vibes off in the overdub room. But Norman, that was his vision, and we had an arranger and a master rhythm chart in front of us - we had parts to read. You could add some things to the arrangement, but at first sight, you had to read the chart correctly. Myself and Joe Messina could read bass clef so we could double some parts for Jamerson if they wanted it. But that was the whole idea: we had excellent arrangers, and we had charts, so we couldn't go off willy-nilly and do stuff.
Songfacts: What do you think of the analog sound versus the digital sound?
Coffey: I like the analog sound because it just had that warmth to it. You know, it had a certain sound to it. CDs sound fine but it's a little bit different. When they started recording and going digital, it took them a while to be able to create some kind of warmth because it was too new.
Songfacts: What did you learn about production and running a session from your time at Motown?
Coffey: That it's the best training. I did double sessions at Motown every day and then I would go over and do Holland-Dozier-Holland at night. Do Freda Payne, "Band Of Gold" and all that stuff with every group that they had [H-D-H left Motown in 1969 and started their own label, Invictus/Hot Wax]. And in my spare time, I'd run down to Muscle Shoals with Wilson Pickett in Nashville, and then in Detroit here, I'd be doing The Dramatics.
Then in LA, that's a whole other deal. I was working with Ringo Starr and I was working with Quincy Jones out there, and I was working with all these producers. So, being a session guy, you get to work with the best producers in the world if you're lucky, and I was lucky. I learned a lot. I never took any of their ideas, but I learned a lot about how they made hits.
Songfacts: Who was the best producer you worked with?
Coffey: I'd say Norman Whitfield. He was the one that also gave me a chance to be creative. I liked working with Holland, Dozier and Holland, you can't get better songwriters than those guys.
Songfacts: What did Norman Whitfield do in a studio that was so special?
Coffey: He did the breakdowns. A lot of producers will be in the control room with the engineer trying to do it that way, and the arranger would be in the studio with the guys handling the rhythm section, but Norman wasn't like that. He had the arranger there to make sure the chart was written, but Norman stood right next to the drummers. In the hot summertime we'd be all sweating in there and he'd be right in there with us. That was his world.
Songfacts: According to our friends at WhoSampled, there are something like 103 of your songs that have appeared in different samples. At first you weren't getting paid for these - it was the Wild West - they were just showing up.
Songfacts: And then, later on, it starts getting sorted out, but I'm wondering what happens when already there are 50 songs out there that are using your work.
Coffey: Well, how I dealt with it is I called Clarence Avant. My middle son James gave me 20 cassettes of the people who had sampled my work. I took those and made copies and I gave them to Clarence, and I said, "Look, you own everything on these records under copyright, and I own the rights to the songs. Here's what's going on."
So, Clarence Avant at the time was the chairman of the board for Motown in New York, and he said, "I don't want this to become everybody's suing each other and all this craziness because it will just take away from the business. I will talk to all the label presidents and we will figure out how we can get some money." And he started getting me part-writing on the songs that used samples of my work.
Songfacts: If you wanted to, would you have been able to get the songs that sampled you pulled?
Coffey: I think it would have been a legal nightmare. It would have gone round and round because sampling was so new that they weren't quite sure what percentage goes where and all that kind of stuff. It would have just tied up all the resources.
I didn't have the resources to hire attorneys to do that stuff, and if you're going to stop a major label that's got attorneys on retainer for just that reason, you've gotta have a lot of money just to do that, and that would've just been a nightmare. I didn't want to get involved in all that.
Songfacts: On Live at Baker's, you did "Moonlight In Vermont." Could you talk about why you chose to do that song?
Coffey: Well I always liked the standards, and I was a fan of Wes Montgomery. I used to go hear him all the time when he came to the Drome Lounge in Detroit, and I got to know him. I used to hang out with him on the breaks and we'd have a few beers. He was my idol coming up. What a great player Wes was - and he was doing standards.
And then, I was a fan of all the jazz guitarists. You had Kenny Burrell, you had Barney Kessel, you had all these guys, so when I was coming up, I always listened to those guys and I was learning how to play the standards.
Songfacts: What is the most important thing you learned from your music theory studies?
Coffey: You know, when I was coming up I was asking guitar teachers, "Why does this chord go here?" and they would say, "Because it sounds good."
They had played long enough where they learned enough standards and tunes, so they started learning about the 2-5 progressions and where they were, but for someone that is just starting out, how do you learn how to do that? I went to Wayne State University and I had a major in harmony and theory because it wouldn't recognize guitar, and that's when I first learned how to write what you hear in your head so it sounds like it on the paper. So I took all the harmony and theory courses, I learned what makes things work the way they do and what chords you want to use. I really learned the nuts and bolts about music.
Songfacts: Did every session guy at Motown know the music theory?
Coffey: No. Those guys were there to read the charts and do sessions. Earl Van Dyke probably did, Johnny Griffith I think had training in that too. Joe Messina knew a lot about it - he was a great sight-reader, but as far as the harmony and theory, not so much.
But, generally speaking their job was not writing songs and writing arrangements. The arrangers probably knew a lot about it because that's what they had to learn to be able to do that stuff, but the session guys knew they just had to be the best at their instrument.
March 18, 2019
More from Dennis at denniscoffeysite.com
Check out our interview with Lamont Dozier, who explains what's going on in "Band Of Gold"
photos: Doug Coombe
More Songwriter Interviews