By Craig D. Lindsey
Detroit soul/funk guitarist Dennis Coffey was supposed to do a show at the Troubadour this week. Unfortunately, it was canceled. But considering how fascinating the man is, we decided to profile him anyway.
After all, Coffey brought a new form of funk to Motown in the late '60s and early '70s. He performed in sessions with the Funk Brothers, Motown's legendary studio band, contributing the wah-wah sound that became his signature. He appeared on number one classics like Edwin Starr's "War" and Diana Ross & The Supremes' "Someday We'll Be Together."
But he didn't only work with Motown artists. He went on to strum for Wilson Pickett, Freda Payne, The Sylvers and George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic collective. This led to his own solo career, with albums featuring instrumental funk favorites like "Scorpio" and "Taurus."
But the '80s weren't so kind to him. "It happens to many artists, you know, and session musicians," says Coffey, now 70, on the phone from his Motor City home base. "After a certain period of time, suddenly everything comes to a halt."
He moved to New York and Los Angeles during that time, looking for work. But with a family to support, Coffey ended up on the assembly line at General Motors, installing torque converters and transmissions when he wasn't playing music part-time. Eventually, he became a major consultant in the automotive industry, moving over to Ford as a training/re-manufacturing coach, instructing at plants all over North America as well as Mexico and Germany.
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During this time he got wind that rappers had begun sampling his '70s hits. "Scorpio," for example, has become one of the most-sampled tunes of all time, with artists including LL Cool J, Young MC and Queen Latifah using the track for breaks.
Coffey remembers working on an album in 1987 and asking the engineer to hip him to new music. "I said, 'Why don't you play me what the new cats are doing?'" he recalls. "So, he plays me a CD and I hear myself playing guitar. It was Public Enemy. And I said, 'Wait a minute! I don't remember getting paid for that session!'" (Coffey later met PE frontman Chuck D, who told him he would've called Coffey up to collaborate, but Chuck's label wasn't paying for it.)
Nowadays, Coffey is out of the automotive game and back to being the full-time music man he once was. In April, he released his (eponymously-titled) first album in five years. For the release, he has various younger artists singing covers of tunes Coffey originally performed on, like Scot Paolo Nutini, garage-rock chanteuse Lisa Kekaula of the California rock-and-soul band The Bellrays, and L.A. retro-soulster Mayer Hawthorne.
Says Coffey: "It's still part of my history. It's just letting the young cats do their thing on it, with me helping them."