If you're looking for something musical or cultural that's unique to the Motor City, Dennis Coffey's Wednesday night "Dinner with Coffey" residency at Northern Lights Lounge is it. These shows provide a rare opportunity to hear one of Detroit's great musical innovators in an intimate setting. More than that, it's a chance to hear one of the world's most respected guitarists improvising and grooving in a realm where there are no borders between funk, jazz and psychedelia.
The instantly recognizable sound of Coffey's guitar can be heard, literally, any time you switch on the radio. Best known for an echoing, fuzzed-out psychedelic six-string attack on many 1968-'72 Motown recordings, Coffey had already been a major influence on the Detroit sound for more than a decade when he was hired at Motown. It was bassist James Jamerson's enthusiasm for Coffey's tendency to subject unsuspecting '60s jazz club patrons to fuzz, echo, and feedback that ultimately led to Coffey playing the classic wah-wah riff on the Temptations' "Cloud Nine" ... and then hundreds of subsequent sessions.
Coffey's refusal to sign an exclusivity agreement with Motown allowed him to pursue a career as a freelance session guitarist, producer, writer, and solo artist. His production credits at the time included Rodriguez's Cold Fact LP, and he appeared on records by everyone from the Parliaments to the Jackson 5. Somewhere in the middle of this dizzying discography-in-progress, Coffey's psych-soul instrumental classic "Scorpio" raced up the charts to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart. The Evolution LP, credited to Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band, would be followed by a sequence of funky, soulful instrumental albums that defy easy categorization.
This unpredictable musical journey was already under way by 1956 when Coffey played a manic, wildly reverberating rockabilly guitar on Vic Gallon's "I'm Gone"(Gondola, 1956). By 1958, he was playing guitar instrumentals with the Royaltones. One of their recordings, "Holy Smokes" (Mala, 1963), finds Coffey's rockabilly licks transformed into the recognizable individual style found on later records like "Scorpio."
From there, his session work encompassed everything from stints with Del Shannon to Wilson Pickett, from the Supremes to Freda Payne, uncredited appearances on the debut albums of Funkadelic and Rare Earth, the Black Belt Jones soundtrack, and sessions with everyone from Barbra Streisand to Ringo Starr.
All of the Dennis Coffey solo albums are unfortunately out of print and await a proper reissue campaign. But there are two excellent CD comps that are a good place to start, since copies of the original vinyl LPs are hard to find. Big City Funk (Vampisoul 2008) contains "Scorpio" and other early '70s work originally released on the Sussex label. His mid-to-late '70s recordings on the Westbound label are featured on Live Wire (Westbound/Ace 2008). Both comps are essential for anyone interested in Detroit's musical history.
On Wednesday nights at Northern Lights Lounge, Dennis plays whatever he feels like playing. Sometimes a Motown melody, sometimes a jazz standard, eventually working his way into long, funky improvisations that find him stretching out into some far out sonic territory (especially on "It's Your Thing" and "Theme from Black Belt Jones"). Accompanied by an excellent organ-drums-conga funk combo, Dennis gets into what he describes as "searching for that lost chord." His solos often arrive at a kind of "othernesss," where notes and chords explode and rise and fall with an avant-garde edge that brings to mind Coltrane or Sun Ra. It's actually a logical progression from the exuberance of Coffey's earliest recordings, when he was a 15-year-old guitarist in the formative years of what's now known as "the Detroit sound."
Local rock star Matthew Smith is a Detroit-based musician and producer. Recent production credits include the new album by Andre Williams, which reunited Williams with Dennis Coffey in the studio for the first time since the '60s. Stars on stars is a recurring feature in Metro Times.