The Big Interview – Dennis Coffey
So the time has finally arrived for our next big interview and what a great artist we have for you! Former member of the legendary Funk Brothers, guitar legend, producer and all round musical genius – Mr Dennis Coffey! Dennis doesn’t give interviews very often so we are both excited & honoured that he agreed to talk about all things Motown, gold discs & Rodriguez. Check out what he had to say below:
Gazfunk: First off Dennis, thanks for doing the interview – how are you keeping?
Dennis Coffey: I am doing well, thanks. I am playing a lot of local shows and have recently played at the Iridium Jazz Club in NYC with the Les Paul Trio. I’ve also performed in Portland, Oregon and at the Funkfest in Long Beach, California.
G: I want to take you way back – when did you first pick up a guitar and what was your inspiration?
D.C: I always liked music – my mom told me that I could name every song on the radio by the age of two. I first started playing the ukulele at the age of 9 and picked up the guitar shortly after that. Two of my cousins in upper Michigan were playing guitars and singing country songs and I used to spend two weeks every year up North with them and they showed me how to play some country songs and got me started. I did my first record date at the age of 15. You can find the record on Youtube – it’s called I’m Gone by Vic Gallon. That is me playing both guitar solos (you can listen to the track here)
G: You joined Motown in 1967 – how did that come about?
D.C: One day I got a telephone call from James Jamerson, the legendary bassist at Motown. He and I had already worked together on a few sessions and he introduced me to producer Hank Cosby. Hank was Stevie Wonder’s producer and the contractor who hired the musicians at Motown. I had already played on gold records for Del Shannon, Golden World and various Northern Soul artists. Hank told me that Motown was forming a rehearsal band upstairs of Golden World Studios to allow producers to experiment with new ideas. Jamerson would be the bandleader. He told me Motown would pay me a salary to be a part of this band. I accepted this offer and one day Norman Whitfield came in with an arrangement of a song called Cloud Nine that he wanted to record with The Temptations. At the rehearsal I took out my wah-wah pedal and used it on the intro. Norman told me that, that was exactly what he was looking for. Two weeks later I was at Motown recording Cloud Nine. After that Norman used me on all of his sessions. He had a vision of where Motown needed to go and I helped him get there.
G: During that time you worked with some incredible musicians & artists, but was there anyone in particular that you feel most proud to have worked with?
D.C: I liked working with Norman Whitfield & The Temptations because they allowed me to be creative. I was also proud of working with Michael Jackson & The Jackson Five, Ringo Starr, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and many others.
G: In ’71 you released Scorpio which became a million selling single and you also won a gold disc for it, how did it feel for you to finally step out of the shadow of Motown and receive such recognition under your own name?
D.C: I was never under contract to Motown so I was always recording as an artist and producer alongside my partner, Mike Theodore. The first album I recorded under my own name was called Hair and Thangs and was released on Maverick Records. Scorpio was from my second album Evolution on Sussex. It felt great to have a gold record of my own!
G: Around that time you went on to work with Rodriguez. When did you first come across him and what did you think when you first saw him?
D.C: The first time Mike & I worked with Rodriguez was when we arranged two songs for him to be produced by Harry Balk, the owner of Impact & Twirl Records. Nothing happened with those two songs. Later we went to hear Rodriguez at a club on the Detroit River called The Sewer. When we entered the club we saw Rodriguez singing while facing the wall with his back to the audience. We thought that was a bit strange but it did force you to listen to his lyrics. We liked what we heard so we got him a deal to record the Cold Fact album on Sussex Records.
G: This year saw the release of the docu-film “Searching For Sugarman” which is one of my favourite films of the year, what did you make of the film and do you feel that Rodriguez is finally getting the recognition he deserves?
D.C: I loved the film. When the producer Malik first came to my house with his assistant and told me he was doing a documentary about Rodriguez, I was glad to help. I had no idea how talented Malik was. He did a great job on the film. I feel that the attention that Rodriguez is now receiving is way overdue – Mike and I always believed in his talent.
G: Do you have any new material following on from last year’s self-titled album and are there any other exciting projects that you are working on?
D.C: I am back in the clubs reinventing myself and my music by taking it to the people. The audiences in Detroit are great audiences and keep me on the right track. I have 20 original songs already written and when I am ready I will be looking for a new record label.
G: Thanks for your time Dennis & best of luck for the future.
D.C: Thanks – it’s been a pleasure.
We asked Dennis to select a song from his back catalogue to feature and he chose the mighty Scorpio. Enjoy!