The Hardest-Working Man You've Never Heard Of
Dennis Coffey Has Made a Lifelong Career by Staying Out of the Limelight
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You may not recognize the name Dennis Coffey, but he's on your iPod. As a session musician in the late '60s and early '70s heyday of Motor City soul, the guitarist played on classics including Honey Cone's "Want Ads," Freda Payne's "Band of Gold," and "I Want You" by Marvin Gaye. His innovative sounds are an integral part of nearly all the Temptations' funky latter-day hits: "Cloud Nine," "Ball of Confusion," "Psychedelic Shack." In the annals of sampling, he's right up there with James Brown, popping up on tracks by Eric B. & Rakim, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, DJ Shadow, Moby, Deee-Lite, and Rage Against the Machine. Then there's his catalog as a solo artist, which includes the 1971 top 10 instrumental "Scorpio," the soundtrack to the 1974 blaxploitation classic Black Belt Jones, and his 2010 self-titled comeback LP for prestigious UK imprint Strut Records.
True, Coffey was featured in Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the 2002 documentary about the label's in-house band, the Funk Brothers (which he joined in 1967), but that hardly makes him a household name. Musicians' musicians like Coffey resemble great Hollywood character actors more than big box-office draws. Middle America might not know who they are, but they have the acclaim of their peers, steady employment, and the freedom to move between a variety of projects without attracting undue attention.
In Coffey's case, this has yielded a résumé far more diversified than his status as a funk and soul legend might suggest. Having grown up emulating the country licks of Chet Atkins and Hank Williams, he cut his first record backing rockabilly musician Vic Gallon when he was only 15. "I had to get someone else to drive me to the session," he recalls, laughing. "But the guy paid me, and I thought, 'How cool is this? I get paid to make records now!'" While working on Dennis Coffey, he was drafted to record with infamous blues singer Andre Williams. He's even talking about a classical project with Father Eduard Perrone, the man responsible for preserving the legacy of Detroit composer and conductor Paul Paray.
Much of that stylistic flexibility hinges on Coffey's ability to innovate on the fly. When he was working for Motown, Hot Wax, and other seminal Detroit labels, players were supposed to lay down four sides per session. "We were introduced to a new song once an hour, and expected to come up with new sounds for each." Producers like Norman Whitfield regularly asked Coffey what unusual effects and pedals he had in his bag of tricks; he generated the hornlike timbres that grace the intro of the Undisputed Truth's 1971 number-three hit "Smiling Faces Sometimes" by using a curious gadget outfitted with organ stops. On his solo records, he would arrange guitar parts to sound like a brass section and put vocal ensembles through guitar effects.
Years of playing well with others and being open to new ideas, plus a back catalog to die for, helped Coffey avoid the pitfalls that plague many veteran artists who attempt to update their sound. Dennis Coffey hews close to his roots, mixing funky originals in the classic Coffey mold with new readings of songs he first cut with Wilson Pickett, Funkadelic, and Detroit cult hero Rodriguez. For the latter tracks, he tapped guest vocalists who clearly appreciated the nature of the project—Mayer Hawthorne, Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs, Lisa Kekaula of the BellRays—rather than a bunch of veteran alt-rockers or American Idol contestants. (The recent Outer Galaxies: Dennis Coffey Re-worked EP reflects that homegrown sensibility, too, emphasizing remixes by Michigan natives like Recloose, Ectomorph, and Dabrye.) His band and management team may include longtime associates of Eminem and Kid Rock, but that's because Coffey stays active in the Detroit scene, it's not a desperate bid to reach a younger demographic.
And "active" is the key word there. Despite all that studio experience, playing live has always been crucial for Coffey. "You can stay at home and woodshed all you like, but if you're going to make records with any hope of selling your music, you have to get in front of an audience." Even though he turns 71 this November, he has no intention of retiring soon—or resorting to a Branson, Missouri–style "greatest hits" show. "I don't want to be a nostalgia act," he says. "I'm out there doing what I do, and having fun, and that's what I'm supposed to be doing."