Dennis Coffey has racked up an arsenal of fire recordings through the span of the past five decades, and now at 70, he’s still going strong. The former Funk Brother once electrified Motown’s library with funky guitar licks, and his trusty wah-wah, appearing on tracks for Valerie Simpson (Ashford & Simpson), Funkadelic, and with other legendary recording artists during the height of the funk and soul. Coffey was the first white performer on the popular show Soul Train, and his now infamous song “Scorpio” once was set at #6 on the Billboard Pop Chart, an amazing feat for an instrumental record. 

We got Coffey on the phone rapping about the good ole times at Motown, his self-titled album that just dropped this past April on Strut Records, and his extensive tour schedule. A one-of-a-kind interview with a one-of-a-kind musician. 

If you are unfamiliar with Dennis Coffey, check out the recently released STRUT mix by “Detroit ambassadaor” House Shoes. This mix provides a great look into the sounds of Coffey, both through his original music and through those who sampled him.
Constellations – The A to Z of Dennis Coffey: A Mix By House Shoes by Strut

What are your thoughts on modern music now?

Well you know what? The first time I heard myself sampled I was doing one of my albums, and I asked the engineer to play me something current, like what are these new guys doing? And he puts on this record and I hear myself playing guitar with Chuck D rapping over it, and I said to the engineer “I don’t remember getting paid to play on that session.” My middle son James had been listening to a lot of hip-hop and he gave me about twenty CDs that all sampled my work. I contacted Clarence Avant, because he owned the publishing and the copyright, which means he owned every note on all of those records. At the time, Clarence was the chairman of the board of Motown in New York. He said, “You know what? I’m going to talk to the label presidents out here, because I know these guys. We’re going to start getting you guys some money,” because he said “I can just see this sampling thing is going to be a nightmare for everybody will get sued all the time. “We’ll start paying you guys, and I’ll have these labels to start paying you guys, so we’ll all start paying for samples and figure out how to do this.” I started getting checks for the samples and for songs, and I met Chuck D and he’s a good guy. He emails me once in a while, so that’s kind of how that worked.

And what’s interesting on my new album is that they’ve got an EP that’s available online that has eight remixes, and it’s just amazing how creative the guys who did the remixes were. You got my original songs that I just recorded on the new album, and then you’ve got these guys going and pretty much slicing and dicing that, but it helps me now, as opposed to doing it without my consent and without me being involved. And these guys did a great job. There’s a whole other thing going on here, the talent that these guys have. One guy is doing a rap on there, they gave a whole new life to these eight songs by what they did with the stuff the song that I recorded last year.

New album. What was the vision for your self-titled album that was released this past April?

Again, you have to go the way that you can touch the audience you have to get in front of them and play. The last five years here, I’ve been doing a lot of club work, going down to New Orleans and playing with those guys and doing SXSW, going out and getting with the people again. They redefined what I’m playing a lot. My wife Millie—the “Miss Millie” song is about her—she hooked me up with this producer around town, and he’s Kid Rock’s engineer too. He came to hear me play, and he said “let’s get in the studio man, let’s make some records.” And I said “Well, I know how to do that, but when you get the record, then what?” He said, “let me think about that.” six months went by and I got a call from him and he had put a management group together with himself, Chris Peters, and Chris Fuller. He says “here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s a two page plan if you’ll sign, here’s a two page plan step-by-step of what we’re going to do, pre-production, production, post-production, touring and support, getting a label and all that all laid out so I signed with him on the plan, and they got the deal with Strut [Records].

They really picked the musicians. Half the musicians they picked were the young cats here in town. I used different bands of mine anyways. My job then was to go and write a lot of songs, because that’s what I do, so I wrote about thirty songs and then I demoed them, and they said, “okay we’ll pick these songs.” The first six songs that we did, I wrote up the rhythm charts, we went to the studio and did the rhythm parts with the rhythm section and I went back in and did all of the guitar overdubs and stuff and I picked the best three and finished them up. And this was the first time I didn’t produce myself. They did all the stuff, so all I had to worry about was playing guitar, playing at the clubs, writing the songs and that was my piece of it, which was a full plate anyway, because I still practice guitar two hours a day. I’m still trying to find that last goal. And that’s how it came about, and my production team selected the different artists and negotiated all that sort of thing with Quinton Scott who is the president of Strut over in London. So that was their strategy. I was just the guy who was doing the input of playing the guitar, and writing the songs and the cover songs we did were sessions that I did back in the day.

Dennis Coffey ft. Mayer Hawthorne – “All Your Goodies Are Gone”

Who are some of the musicians on the album?

The session players, some of them were guys that I just met during the session that my management team knew. Some of them were guys who played at clubs around here with me, about half and half. Some of the guys I knew, some of the guys were new.

The way I work with musicians, I work the charts, but I give them the room—like Motown gave me—to be creative, as long as you read the charts first so we all know where we are starting from, and I had fun. Some of them get intimidated by my history and I tell them, “Hey, we’re just going to have fun here, we’re going to make some music. It’s no big deal. This is what we do, and you guys play. That’s why you’re here, so we’re just going to sit down and we’re going to have some fun.” And that’s how I approached it. I didn’t criticize the guys, or nitpick, or hover over them. I don’t do any of that. I just say, “You guys are good players, so let’s just do it.”

I saw you play with Adrian Younge at SXSW. What are your thoughts on the resurgence of live instrumentation and the soul sound?

My touring band for The States is Will Session’s band, and you know, Mayer Hawthorne, I sat in with him and his band. He’s an excellent singer, excellent young band. Fitz and the Tantrums, I did a song with them. When all of the computer based music and the producers doing the beats, it’s almost like the producer does everything musically. When all that came to be, there was a period of time when I was really wondering what was going to be the future of music because there’s a certain human element that you get when you get a rhythm section together that really makes the difference than something going through a time code or drum machine or so forth. Now I believe that the music is a good edge, because these young kids could play. When I was in Europe I had a group called the Haggis Hornes, and they were my backup band over there. I had bands in New Orleans and Memphis and so forth, so the younger people can play. They are working hard and they are very accomplished musicians, I’ve never been disappointed with a band backing me up on the road yet. They’ve all been good players, they learn my songs, and that’s the future of music, all of these young players.

Is there a need for a bigger push for music education?

Yeah, absolutely. I just did a couple of radio spots for a classical jazz station WRJC, the whole idea is that they play classical music and traditional jazz, which are both highly evolved art forms. I think the students in school need to be exposed and taught. I ended up wanting to play music so bad that I wanted to get into the orchestra in school, and they said, “Well, we don’t have a guitar in the orchestra,” I said “Well, what do I do?” And they said, “Why don’t you learn how to learn how to play string bass?” So I spent all summer learning how to play upright bass, and learning how to use the German bow, or the French bow, and learning how to read the bass clap and I ended up playing in the orchestra in high school. It was a good experience.

Things move faster with the computer. Does it ever seem to you that the kids of today’s generation are too impatient to learn how to play a real instrument?

You have to look at the young people. My stepson is writing techno stuff, I mean that’s what he does. My grandson is doing technical stuff with music with keyboards, and he’s got a group together with a group of singers that he’s working on. The future is the young folks, and they are going to define it. They are going to play instruments or they are going to combine instruments with technical computer stuff or whatever, because they are the future of what it’s going to be.

What’s been the response for your new album?

You know what? The response has been great from the CD. I’ve been doing interviews. People all over the world call me to do interviews from Australia, from Europe, the crowds are coming to hear me play. I did SXSW and I took both sessions down there and we did “Scorpio” with four horns. And I had Kendra Morris, a singer from New York and doing the vocals on some of the cover songs, and we played two concerts down there. It was great. After that, we got back and we headed out again, and we did Brooklyn, and we did Boston and Philadelphia, and Chicago, and Cleveland, and then we did the big Bonnaroo Festival down in Tennessee. Then I did Paris and London, and came back and did Toronto, and then the Ottawa Blues Festival on that same stage a week before it crashed. Which I am glad I wasn’t on that stage when it crashed.

We’ve had a good response and good crowds in all of these places. In September I’m going to Seattle and Oregon, so it’s just all balancing out, but you can tell how well the CD is doing by the amount of people that show up. You can go on Youtube, and see all of these things that I do, suddenly people tape them and they put it out there. I’m looking at all of this stuff, doing the finale with Mayer Hawthorne and Kendra. All that stuff is on Youtube.

People will come and see you for your history. You better be able to crank it when they come, or they’ll be real disappointed and they won’t come back. To me, again it’s about the fans. You have to surprise them and amaze them, and when they leave they say, “This guy is doing something special.” The history just gets them in there, but you have to deliver when they’re in there.

Any final thoughts?

Well, the biggest thing is that I want to thank the fans who come to my concerts. I want to thank the fans who support and buy my albums. That’s the whole thing. I practice down in my basement everyday for a couple of hours, but I go out and play, and for all musicians, if the fans don’t support you, you’re done. I mean, you’ll be in your basement by yourself forever wondering what happened. Well I can’t thank the fans enough, because that’s the reason for all of my success. Even in Motown, they bought that music you know, and now whenever I’m doing concerts, they come to hear me play. I can’t say it enough, for a young musician growing up, you have to respect the fans, and you have to get up and perform. You’ve got to work with the fans and be accessible to them. They are the driving force. It’s almost like a partnership between me and my fans. I always want to make sure that I give them credit, because that’s makes it work.

Interview by Malik Abdul-Rahmaan in collaboration with Boyuan Gao 




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