In 1972, guitarist Dennis Coffey had a hit with the funk-soul instrumental Scorpio, which reached #6 on the Billboard pop chart. He had been there many times before as a member of Motown’s Funk Brothers house band. That’s Coffey’s wah-wah guitar on the Temptations’ Cloud Nine, Ball of Confusion and Psychedelic Shack. Coffey also can be heard on Diana Ross & the Supremes’ Someday We’ll Be Together and Freda Payne’s Band of Gold as well as many other soul-funk hits.
In addition to his sterling career as a soul sideman, Coffey had a dynamic album career between 1969 and 2011, including one of the finest scores for a blaxploitation film—Black Belt Jones (1974). His funk-soul studio albums have been delightfully inventive and complex, particularly his provocative instrumental covers of It’s Your Thang, Get Back, Whole Lotta Love, Never Can Say Goodbye and Fame. His Garden of the Moon from Evolution (1971) is a fascinating rock-funk work; Finger Lickin’ Good (1976), released in the middle of the disco era, includes punchy dance tracks; and Back Home (1977) is a clever mix of dance, funk and soul.
Now, thanks to Resonance Records and producer Zev Feldman (and co-producer Kevin Goins), Coffey’s discography starts in 1968 instead of ’69. The newly released Dennis Coffey: Hot Coffey in the D features seven previously unreleased tracks that were recorded in 1968. Surprisingly, they showcase Coffey’s acid rock-jazz side that I never knew existed.
In ’68, when Coffey and his band appeared at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge in Detroit (Coffey’s hometown), the trio featured Coffey (g), Lyman Woodard (organ) and Melvin Davis (d). Coffey recorded his group’s performance but wasn’t able to stir label interest in the material. So he kept the reels on the shelf until recently, when record producer Goins hipped Zev to Coffey’s desire to release it.
On the album, we hear Coffey’s fuzz and wah-wah guitar on a range of rock-funk originals as well as covers of By the Time I Get to Phoenix, The Look of Love and Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. There are quite a few surprises here. For one, the fidelity is studio quality, which is amazing given the live venue. Second, Coffey, who was a seasoned studio musician at the time, outshines many of his rock-guitar contemporaries. And third, other than Sly and the Family Stone, I’m hard-pressed to think of another rock-funk band at this point in time let alone a trio. While the organ and drums give the music a soulful feel, Coffey’s guitar is pure rock. Clearly, Coffey was way ahead of his time here. Glorious music from a gifted artist who has flown below the radar of most music fans. But now that you know about him, you’re in for a treat as you explore his discography. Just be sure to start at the beginning—Hot Coffey in the D.
JazzWax tracks: You’ll find Dennis Coffey: Hot Coffey in the D (Resonance) here.
JazzWax clips: Here’s Coffey’s take on Milton Middlebrook and Jo Armstead’s Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over), which was first released by Ruby Andrews in 1967…
Here’s Dennis Coffey’s Scorpio…
For more on Dennis Coffey, go here.