Scorpio

Album: Evolution (1971)
Charted: 6

Songfacts®:

  • A scorching funk instrumental penned and performed by longtime Detroit session guitarist Dennis Coffey, "Scorpio" is one of the classic breakbeat tunes that laid the foundation for hip-hop's sound, first as a popular record among DJs in the 1970s and then as a much-sampled rhythm track. Like James Brown's "Funky Drummer" or The Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache," Coffey's four-minute jam has become integral to any history of hip-hop's development. It was one of the first songs featured in Paul Winley's early breakbeat anthology record series, Super Disco Brake's [sic], and "Scorpio" subsequently appeared as a sample in a wide range of tracks, including "Bust A Move" by Young MC, "Night of the Living Baseheads" by Public Enemy, and "The Score" by Fugees. And while the song's classic drum break is seemingly omnipresent, that's not to denigrate the rest of the funky single's sound. Indeed, as Nate Watts (bass player for Stevie Wonder) recalls in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, if a bass player coming up in Detroit in the early '70s couldn't play the extended bass solo that former Motown session player Bob Babbitt laid down on "Scorpio," then he "wasn't a bass player."
  • A Detroit native, Coffey was a fixture on the Motor City music scene from the mid-1950s onward, recording his first session as a precocious 15-year-old in 1955. After gigging in a number of Detroit ensembles over the next decade, the guitarist settled in as a widely recorded member of Motown Records' famed Funk Brothers studio band by the end of the 1960s. As Motown's Sound of Young America moved more toward psychedelia in that period, Coffey's experimentation on guitar was essential. His effects-laden guitar contributions to Temptations hits like "Cloud Nine" and "Ball Of Confusion," for example, were central to the texture of those tracks, and a big part of the re-envisioning of that group's sound under producer Norman Whitfield. Other Motown chartbusting singles to feature Coffey on guitar include Edwin Starr's "War" and The Supremes' "Someday We'll Be Together."
  • Signed to record under his own name for the MGM subsidiary Maverick Records, Coffey debuted with a set of raw instrumentals entitled Hair and Thangs in 1969. But it was two years later, with the release of "Scorpio" as a single that Coffey's name went national. The 7-inch sold over a million copies and reached #6 in the US. In 1972, Coffey made history as the first white artist to appear on the show Soul Train, performing - of course - "Scorpio" for host Don Cornelius and his dancers.

    While "Scorpio" was the lone commercial breakthrough for Dennis Coffey, his music is much-revered and oft-sampled among hip-hop DJs and producers. For instance, his 1974 blaxploitation soundtrack for the Jim Kelly martial arts feature, Black Belt Jones, is another breakbeat extravaganza; its main theme figures prominently in LL Cool J's 1989 single, "Jingling Baby."
  • The song got its title because Coffey is a Scorpio. He didn't put much thought into naming his instrumentals, giving them generic titles like "Song #4" until he could think of something.

    The zodiac theme worked well though, so Coffey looked to the stars for other titles, releasing songs called "Capricorn's Thing" and "Taurus."
  • Along with Coffey, three other Motown Funk Brothers played on this track: bassist Bob Babbitt, tambourine man Jack Ashford, and percussionist "Bongo" Eddie Brown. Guitarists Ray Monette and Joe Podorsek also played on it.
  • A distinctive section of this song is the breakdown where the bass and congas take over. This is something Coffey learned from working with Motown producer Norman Whitfield, who would stand in front of the drummers during sessions and signal to the musicians he wanted for breakdowns.

    What's interesting about the "Scorpio" breakdown is that it's not centered on guitar, even thought Coffey is a guitarist. "I cut out five bars of my own piece in there," he told Songfacts. "I cut it out and threw it on the floor at RCA in New York because it was interfering with the groove."
  • In his Songfacts interview, Coffey explained how he got the guitar sound on this track: "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.'"
  • There are no real lyrics on this song, but there are some voices that can be heard on the track. These are from a studio microphone that captured Jack Ashford and Eddie Brown aiming some positive words at Bob Babbitt while he grooved on his bass. Coffey liked what was going on, so he had his producer, Mike Theodore, leave the microphone on.
  • The song took a while to catch on. The album sold poorly at first, as did the "Scorpio" single. Coffey had given up on his guitar band concept and was recording a more traditional album when he learned that "Scorpio" was doing very well in dance clubs. With a promotional push from the label, the song climbed the chart and Coffey went back to his guitar band for his next album, Goin' For Myself.

Comments: 1

  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn October 24th 1971, "Scorpio" by Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #77; and ten weeks later on January 2nd, 1972 it peaked at #6 {for 3 weeks} and spent 17 weeks on the Top 100...
    It reached #9 on Billboard’s R&B Singles chart…
    The band had two other records make the Top 100 chart; "Taurus" {peaked at #18 in 1972} and "Getting It On" {reached #93 in 1972}
    As stated above Mr. Coffey was the guitarist on the Supremes' "Someday We'll Be Together" in 1969 and "War" by Edwin Starr in 1970; and both those records peaked at #1 on the Top 100...
    Dennis James Coffey will celebrate his 74th birthday in eighteen days on November 11th {2014}.
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