Dennis Coffey’s new album was recorded in the ’60s. Yes, he was there — and, yes, he remembers. “I wasn’t one of those guys,” the guitarist and onetime Motown Funk Brother says with a laugh.
Hot Coffey in the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, which comes out Jan. 13 (and is previewed below with the opening track, “Fuzz”) captures an electric trio performing during its regular residency at the Detroit club during 1968. The seven-song set features Coffey and two other famed Motor City stalwarts — keyboardist Lyman Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis — playing highly improvised funk and jazz, including instrumental interpretations of Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” Ruby Andrews’ “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over)” (Coffey played on the original studio version), Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “The Look Of Love.”
“I think I had my greatest development as a player and artist when I started playing with those guys. There was a real sense of freedom there,” says Coffey, who was producer Norman Whitfield’s go-to at Motown for iconic parts on the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine,” “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” and “Psychedelic Shack,” the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” as well as Freda Payne’s “Band Of Gold.” Coffey began playing in the trio two years prior at another Detroit club (the Frolic Show Bar) before the move to Morey Baker’s.
“I had been in top 40 bands with dancers and stuff, and now people were actually sitting and listening to what you were playing,” Coffey recalls. “The money wasn’t much, but I didn’t care. It was just a great way for me to develop as an artist.”
The trio’s originals, meanwhile — such as the edgy “Fuzz” and “The Big D” — were treated more like frameworks than compositions. “‘Fuzz’ was just a song we wrote,” Coffey remembers. “I was using feedback and stuff. We just wrote it and played and let it go wherever it felt right, never the same way twice. You can hear that on the whole CD; It’s just organic, just get up and play and not feel too tied to any arrangement. It was very different from whatever we were all doing in the studio during sessions.”
Though he remained a busy session hand, Coffey — who discovered the Morey Baker’s shows on four-track reel tapes in his basement — went on to establish his own name on a series of solo recordings starting with 1969’s Hair And Thangs. His instrumental hit “Scorpio” reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 during 1971, and Coffey, along with producer Mike Theodore, discovered singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, subject of the Academy Award-winning Searching For Sugar Man documentary, and played on Rodriguez’s debut, Cold Fact.
Hot Coffey… is receiving a deluxe treatment from Resonance Records, including a 60-page book that includes essays and interviews with Coffey, Davis and Theodore, along with commentaries by singer Bettye LaVette and former Motown exec Clarence Avant. Coffey also expects more live releases to come from the seven reels of tape he gave producers Zev Feldman and Kevin Goins. “There’s definitely enough stuff for at least two CDs, maybe more,” he says. “It depends on how this one does, but there’s a lot more on those tapes.”
Coffey’s last studio album, a self-titled affair, came out in 2011 featuring guest vocals by Mayer Hawthorne, Paolo Nutini and Lisa Kekaula of the Bellrays, and he’s biding his time making another one. “I’ve got 20 originals sitting here until I need ’em,” he says. “Right now I’m letting them sit until we get this (Hot Coffey) album out and see how it goes. I’m always ready and willing to work; I just want it to be at the right time.”