When guitarist Dennis Coffey’s granddaughter came to Detroit from Charleston to visit him, he took her to two iconic places in his life: the Motown Museum and the Ford Rouge Plant. Like many musicians of his generation — Coffey is 76 — the music business was his life, mostly, but at other times, the automotive business offered a paycheck.
In 1956, as a Detroit Mackenzie High School student, aged 15 and without a driver’s license, Coffey still managed to start his career as a guitarist, playing at teen clubs and later, live and on recording sessions for such bands as the Royaltones, Johnny and the Hurricanes, and Del Shannon.
By the late ’60s, he was playing in Motown’s house band, the Funk Brothers, where he swapped leads with guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina on such classics as “Just My Imagination” (the Temptations) and “Baby I’m For Real” (the Originals).
Coffey brought a younger sensibility, steeped in rock, to Motown’s infamous Snakepit, and producer Norman Whitfield encouraged his experimentation with distortion and wah-wah guitar on such psychedelic soul classics as the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion.”
By day, Coffey was deploying his Cry-Baby wah wah pedal and Echoplex at Motown, but at night he was playing in a different style in the clubs as part of a trio with Hammond B3 player Lyman Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis.
Now there’s a record of the three, captured on a night in 1968, as Resonance Records has released a new live CD, recorded in 1968: “Hot Coffey in the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge.”
The album shows Coffey, Woodard and Davis playing a funked up rock-jazz hybrid, using pop hits such as “The Look of Love” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and the spiritual “Wade in the Water” as a launching pad.
The CD cover is a psychedelic cartoon by “Simpsons” artist (and Detroit native) Bill Morrison, showing an array of Detroit icons surrounding Coffey, among them the Velvet Peanut Butter “kids,” the Vernors gnome, Milky the Clown and Sonny Bono.
To promote the CD, Coffey will sign copies and talk to fans starting at 4 p.m. at the Motown Museum in a special “Love and Coffey” Valentine’s Day event.
Coffey has been involved in so many different projects over the years as a player but also as a producer (he and partner Mike Theodore produced Rodriguez, for one) that fans will have any number of things to ask him.
The Morey Baker tapes had been sitting around Coffey’s house for almost 50 years but were in good shape. Coffey told his friend, New York-based producer Kevin Goins about the tapes, and Goins suggested that he send them to Resonance Records, which specializes in lost or forgotten jazz and R&B music.
Coffey had the tapes digitized and sent them in a thumb drive to Los Angeles. Zev Feldman of Resonance signed right on.
Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge was on Livernois between 6 and 7 Mile; it’s not to be confused with the historic jazz club Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, which is further north on Livernois, just south of 8 Mile.
“The building is still there, only now it’s called The Locker Room,” Coffey said. Back in the day, he says, the club drew an upscale crowd of lawyers and record people. It was a step up from the Frolic Showbar, where Coffey and the trio spent several years.
Recently, in a story about Coffey’s new CD, a writer for a web music magazine described the Frolic as “chic.”
Coffey laughs. “The maître d’ at the Frolic carried a revolver. He was very polite to people wearing suits, anyway, but they could probably see his gun. They had a guy at the back door with a gun, as well. So there were two bouncers. You might call it Detroit chic, I guess. Gunmetal chic.”
Both Motown and Detroit rock were at full roar in 1968, and there was a lot of cross-pollination between the various threads of popular music.
“It was so interesting,” Coffey said. “We opened up for the MC5 at the Grande Ballroom doing a Wes Montgomery/Dennis Coffey version of (the Beatles’) “A Day in the Life.” The kids got it right away. We funked it up, but they knew.”
Coffey was busy for years before and after the Morey Baker’s gig with sessions, and he and partner Theodore produced music as Theo-Coff, including the Sylvers’ “Boogie Fever,” and of course, Rodriguez’s “Cold Fact” album.
While he’s glad the Rodriguez documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” brought attention to “Cold Fact,” Coffey objects to the way Clarence Avant, who headed up Sussex Records, is portrayed. He’s depicted as the bad guy who didn’t pay royalties to Rodriguez for his albums.
“We always got paid royalties with Clarence,” Coffey said. “Mike (Theodore) and I got paid for the ‘Sugar Man’ soundtrack! Clarence was not the villain. People are lying, going after the wrong person.”
Coffey was given a gold record from Australia for “Cold Fact,” too, so the album was not as obscure as depicted in the film.
You could spend all day listing the non-Motown sessions Coffey played on in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s him playing the earworm electric sitar line on Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold,” and guitar on Edwin Starr’s “War,” “In the Rain” by the Dramatics, “I Wanna Testify” by the Parliaments and many more.
He moved to L.A. and made a go of it for a while as a session player in the ’70s, but finally decided he’d aged out of the music business and returned to Detroit to work on an assembly line putting torque converters into GM cars.
He took some night classes, became adept at lean manufacturing techniques, and left the assembly line to work as a trainer for Ford Motor Co., flying around on the company plane.
But music pulled him back, and retirement from his automotive gig has given him time to play a regular Tuesday night slot at the Northern Lights Lounge in Midtown, as well as to record and shepherd his older music to the marketplace.
After Tuesday’s event at the Motown Museum, fans can go to Northern Lights and see Coffey play some of the music he’ll be talking about.
“Music is in the DNA of this town,” Coffey said, “And it starts with the audience. I’ve been at Northern Lights for eight years, and Tuesday nights have been just packed. You have to have a responsive audience and bar owners who will have live music. Detroit has always had that.”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News.
Love and Coffey
4-6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Coffey’s new CD, “Hot Coffey in the D,” will be available to buy and have signed starting at 4 p.m. From 6-6:30 p.m. the guitarist will talk and take questions, during “Coffey and Conversation.”
Motown Museum, 2648 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. (313) 875-2264
Dennis Coffey live
8 p.m. Tuesday
Northern Lights Lounge
660 W. Baltimore, Detroit