Friday, December 19, 2008

Funky whiteboy history lesson

If there were a Funky Whiteboy Hall of Fame, Dennis Coffey would be a charter member. A session guitarist during the glory years of Detroit soul, Coffey played on such classic cuts as “Band of Gold,” “War,” “It’s a Shame” and “Smiling Faces Sometimes.”

As a solo artist, Coffey had a big hit in 1971 with the funky instrumental “Scorpio.” (Beware of the re-recorded version for sale at MP3 sites; the original piece is inexplicably unavailable.)

And Coffey was probably the only white artist to record a blaxploitation soundtrack album (“Black Belt Jones”).

Dennis Coffey published his musical memoirs in 2004 – “Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars.” I love this book. It captures the excitement of a magical time in our cultural history.

Here’s a small excerpt from the book, where Coffey recalls his breakthrough session for Motown... laying the backing track for the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” alongside the almighty Funk Brothers.

Motown producer Norman Whitfield had checked out Coffey’s playing at a “producers’ workshop” that Motown created so producers could work out their ideas before going into the studio with the Funks.

“Cloud Nine” was one song developed in the producer’s workshop. In fact, it was the only big hit to come out of it, according to Coffey. The workshop was discontinued due to lack of interest from the producers. But while it lasted, this workshop opened the door for Coffey to become a bona fide Motown session musician.

Click here to hear the result of his first date at Hitsville... the Top 10 smash “Cloud Nine.”
DENNIS COFFEY: As I drove up to the house on Grand Boulevard in Detroit and saw the sign, Hitsville, on the front, I suddenly realized that I too could become a part of the Motown Sound. I’d been packing them in at jazz and R&B clubs for the last two years, and I knew once they heard me play I’d be in like Flynn. ... I had already played on hits with artists such as J.J. Barnes, Del Shannon and Edwin Starr, so I was as ready as I’d ever be.

I was a little nervous, but I was young and thought I could do anything. It never dawned on me just how many musicians got one chance at Motown and were never called back. ...

The first person I spoke to was [James] Jamerson, who was sitting on his stool smoking a cigarette. When he saw me, he looked over and grinned.

“Coffey, me lad, how be it with you? What’s going on?”

I grinned back with my guitar in one hand and my special effects bag in the other. “Hey, man, I’m fine. Just tell me where I can set up.”

... Jamerson took me around the room and introduced me to the musicians I didn’t know. Everyone was smiling and real friendly, so I felt right at home. ...

I soon learned that we were expected to record one song per hour – no small feat. We had to sight read a new chart every hour, improvise guitar fills or a solo, and try to make a hit record all at the same time. Each session lasted about three hours. On most days, we did double sessions with an hour off for lunch. ...

That day on the session we had two drummers. Spider [Webb] played high hat and cymbals, and Pistol Allen played snare drum and foot pedal. Most people didn’t realize it, but the concept of using two drummers was born on that session. We used two drummers on almost every session after that.

That was how the drum cymbal parts on Motown records became so rhythmically complicated. I was sure that a lot of drummers working in bars and clubs were going crazy trying to duplicate the drum sound of Motown by attempting to play both drum parts at once. ...

Norman counted off the tempo, and everyone started playing. I ad-libbed a fast wah-wah effect in the introduction and played the written figure on the guitar through the wah-wah pedal. It immediately became very clear to me that I was playing with the finest rhythm section I’d ever heard. ...

On the last verse of the song, the groove we were playing was so hot that I just had to jump in and play a solo. I cranked my volume up a bit, closed me eyes, and let ’er rip.

It didn’t get much better than this. I was finally playing at Motown’s Hitsville studios with the finest damn band in the world and getting paid good money for it too. ... I gave Mr. Wah Wah Pedal a hell of a workout that day!


Dollar Bill said...

Dennis still tears it up and is (as are all of the Funks & Co.)a super nice guy.

KeWayne said...

I did not know about the 2-drums part. I guess I have a tin ear.

Invisible Woman said...

Extremely interesting. The dudes that made all of that classic music happen on a shoestring had to be the most amazing and talented artists ever; I hate that most of the musicians that made it happen are pretty much unheard of--thanks for the links.

A couple of the songs this dude was on were classics in part because of the guitar..very funky white boy :-)

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Thanks, IW. Motown was in the stars business... they turned singers into stars, they even turned songwriters into stars. But the cats who did the "assembly line" work of churning out those magic grooves... still unknown to most.

Only with the Funk Era in the '70s did musicians themselves become stars.

bklyn6 said...

(Beware of the re-recorded version for sale at MP3 sites; the original piece is inexplicably

I downloaded the mp3 some time ago. The first time I downloaded it there were all these snaps, crackles and pops. The current download is a lot clearer, it's from the album "Big City Funk." Maybe it's re-recorded but it sounds pretty good.

This song kicks A!

Undercover Black Man said...

No, Bklyn6, you got the hot-ass original. But I can't find "Big City Funk" on any of the big MP3 sites. What's your secret?

bklyn6 said...

^Check your email.

DeAngelo Starnes said...

Love the story. Need to find that book.

This post reminds me of the Standing in the Shadows dvd that spoke about the Funk Brothers. It was really sad to see how these cats didn't get their just due. Just as bad a rhythm section as the Meters, Booker T. & the MGs, etc.

Been a fun week, Dave.

Dollar Bill said...

I forgot to mention Ray Monette from Rare Earth,another FWB on guitar,who tours with the Funks now.
Rare Earth over all was a bunch of FWB's with a "'delic" edge.

Whew!Just under the wire for this years edition(annual right?).

For some reason FWBW has sat better with me than the "Blue Eyed Soul" threads on every other music forum since the dawn of the net.

Undercover Black Man said...

^^ Thanks, gents. Yeah, let's do it again next year... if for no other reason to give proper appreciation to the Brecker Brothers. Not to mention P-Funk's own Ron Bykowski and Rick Gardner.

DeAngelo Starnes said...

Somebody's gotta do Ron Byowski next year. What's he doing anyway?

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Man, I can't even find a photo of that cat on the Internet... let alone any information on what's become of him.

Too bad. I was looking for a reason to stream "I'll Stay" and "No Head, No Backstage Pass" last week.