If you're into the music that came out of the city of Detroit in the 60's, then you'll already be familiar with the name Dennis Coffey. His name appears on many fine soul sides across many record labels. His guitar work and countless arrangements grace many other important tracks of the 60's and 70's...scroll down and check out the list of artists he's worked with!
This page is devoted to Dennis and his contribution to music over the years, and what better way to illustrate his role but to let the man himself tell a few stories and give you an insight into early recording sessions...you can read more of the same in his own book called, "Guitars, Bars & Motown Superstars" published by Beecool in the UK and the University of Michegan Press in the US and Canada.
The Early Years
Dennis was born in Detroit, Michigan...a city famous for two things - automobiles and music! He lived in with his mother, Gertrude Schultz and sister Pat, in a middle-class neighborhood consisting of two-story frame-and-brick houses on a street lined with tall, shady elm and oak trees. She was an influence musically on him, with her enthusiastic piano playing and singing the big band songs of the era on weekends, while she did her housework. HIs other initial introduction to music was when he was 13, on a Summer vacation with his grandmother and the rest of his relatives in Copper City in northern Michigan, where his cousins, Jim and Marilyn Thompson, were playing guitar and singing country music, fascinated the young Dennis. Indeed, it was Jim and Marilyn who initially taught him how t play, and he practised a lot during the day time whilst his mum was at work, strumming chords while singing country songs. His favorite country artist at the time was Hank Williams.
As a teenager atending Mackenzie High in Detroit, he studied country, rockabilly, rock & roll, rhythm & blues, blues, and jazz, with the major influences being guitarists Scotty Moore (with Elvis), James Burton (with Ricky Nelson), B.B. King, Chuck Berry, and Wes Montgomery. I'll let Dennis tell you what was happening at that point,
"Chuck Berry was playing some guitar licks so innovative, I couldn't even imagine what the hell he was doing. One day I decided to play guitar and sing in the school auditorium at a student assembly. On the day of the big student assembly, I came to school with my little amplifier and my new electric guitar ready to kick ass in the auditorium. Actually, I was as nervous as hell. I was wearing my infamous George Raft style white flannel suit with a black shirt, and my thin yellow knit tie and blue suede shoes. The assembly began and the teachers made their announcements to a sedate student body. When they were through with the introductions, they introduced me - the "Rock & Roll Kid"! After the introduction, I walked out on the stage, plugged my guitar into my amplifier and looked out into the audience. It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. I was up here in front of all these people by myself under the spotlight. The only sound I heard was the pounding of my own heart and my rapid breathing. Well, rock & roll was never for the faint hearted, so I just cranked the volume of my amplifier up and let 'er rip. "Well it's one for the money, two for the show," I sang. "Three to get ready, now go Kat go. But don't you ... step on my blue suede shoes. You can do anything, but honey lay off of them shoes!" My eyes were closed and I was really jamming. I put my heart and soul into my music, and I could feel the kids going berserk just like they did in those early Alan Freed rock & roll movies. Suddenly, my performance came to a screeching halt, followed by a deadly silence. I looked around and couldn't figure out what the hell had happened. I had been performing to a packed house, having the time of my life, and now there was nothing! I looked off stage and the picture became very clear. I saw a teacher standing in the wings, holding my amplifier plug in her hand, and beckoning me to leave the stage. The kids were wildly clapping for more, but when they saw the teacher with the amplifier plug in her hand, they figured out what had happened. Suddenly, they began to hiss and boo. I felt like a fool just standing there so I shook my head, turned around, and walked off the stage. Once I reached the floor, I was confronted by the teacher, who was an older woman, peering at me through glasses that looked like the bottoms of coke bottles. She was a large woman with a robust physique and a bad attitude. "Young man," she hissed in a cold fury, her jaws tighter than a Spanish Woodpecker's lips. "What was the meaning of that obscene demonstration?"
"What are you talking about?" I said, as I looked her right in the eye.
"You were up there on that stage waving that guitar around like a phallic symbol in front of all these kids and I won't tolerate it," she said angrily. "You'll never, ever be allowed to perform at a school assembly again, you nasty boy!"
I was in a state of shock and disbelief when I heard this unexpected blast of official indignity. I thought I had done a good job up there. After all, the audience had just responded favorably to my performance. I just stood there, holding my guitar in my hand with my head down. A shriveled old spinster who was probably still a virgin had shut down the "Rock & Roll Kid" in his major debut. The teacher was still standing there yelling at me, and using terms I didn't even understand. After all, I didn't even know the meaning of the word phallic, until I looked it up later in the school dictionary because at the time, I was only 14 years old, not exactly Mr. Sexual Sophistication."
Meeting Berry Gordy
Dennis was part of a duo along with a rockabilly singer named Durwood Hutto, who was an Elvis look-alike. They had appeared many times around Detroit playing the USO club downtown, private parties and halls. Dennis played lead electric guitar and sang harmony while Durwood strummed away like crazy on a big blond acoustic Gibson guitar belting out the lead vocals. Together they wrote a song called, "Crazy Little Satellite", which was about the Russians sending the worlds first satellite, "Sputnik," into orbit. The duos' first recording happened in the 50's at the Fortune Studios. Over to Dennis -
"It was a dinky, run down recording studio located in an old brown building on Third Avenue in the Cass Corridor in Detroit. We drove up to the studio, parked my mom's red Ford sedan on the street and went inside, paid the fee and recorded our song that day. A woman we met there asked to hear the tape and offered us a record contract with her and Nat Tarnapol, Jackie Wilson's manager and producer at the time. Although the events that led up to the recording contract are a little vague after all these years, some things still remain perfectly clear - we were introduced to Nat and given a contract to sign, but as we were both still so young, our parents had to co-sign with us. We were so inexperienced, we didn't even consider having a lawyer look at it. After we signed the contract, Nat started the wheels in motion to cut a record on us and lease it to a major record label.
The first thing Nat did was to send us to rehearse at a house on Brush Street in downtown Detroit. He told us when we got there to ask for Berry Gordy or Billy Davis. They would provide the musicians to rehearse the songs with us before we went into the recording studio. By that time, we had written two songs, so these musicians would also play on the recording session.
I remember putting my black electric solid body Premier guitar and a small amplifier in the trunk of my mom's red '52 Ford and we headed downtown. We were both totally fascinated by a new combination of hillbilly and rock & roll known as "rockabilly." We loved everything that came out of Sun Records in Memphis and played all of the songs Elvis ever made.
The first time I met Berry Gordy was at the rehearsal house. It was a beautiful two-story brick house off of Brush Street. We walked up the steps to the porch, rang the doorbell and Billy Davis answered the front door. We carried our equipment in the house and set up on the thick shag carpet in the living room. There was a well crafted wooden staircase that spiraled its way up to the second floor. There was a guitar player, drummer and piano player sitting in the living room to practice our songs with us before the session. These musicians were already in tune, so we tuned up our guitars with the piano and waited for Berry to come downstairs.
A few minutes later Berry came down stairs, smiled and introduced himself. He was wearing dark brown slacks and a white polo shirt. Berry was very friendly and treated us real nice, which helped as we were nervous at the time because we were two teenagers who had just signed our first recording contract and we didn't quite know what to expect. We rehearsed our two songs at Berry's house with the band until we got them down real smooth ans Berry told us to be ready to record the songs tomorrow night at United Sound Studios on Second Avenue, across from Wayne State University."
Tell us more Dennis -
"United Sound Studios was located in a large two-story brick house which also had sound and film editing rooms on the second floor. There was also a small recording studio in the front of the building and a large sound stage for filming in the back which was later converted into a recording studio. Berry counted off the tempo to first the song and we belted out the main hook in two-part harmony.
"Crazy little satellite running wild, Crazy little satellite running wild ... " We sang our songs over and over again until we were almost tired of them. I say almost because we were so excited, the studio could have probably blown up and melted before we'd get tired of recording our own music. We kept singing until we finally got a performance that was acceptable to Berry. Afterwards, the recording engineer cut a vinyl dub upstairs on a cutting lathe, and we left the studio in an euphoric state of mind ... we were on our way to stardom! We laughed and joked and told each other we should be on American Bandstand in about three months, because we were ready."
What happened next -will make you smile -
"At about 11 o'clock, Durwood and I walked out of the studio and headed to my car. The street was dark and deserted but in those days it wasn't as dangerous as it is now. I had my car keys in my hand and Durwood was carrying the dub of our new record. I walked up to my car, placed the key in the lock but I couldn't seem to get it to go in. I kept trying to make the key fit when I heard the sound of running feet behind me. I turned around just in time to see this big maniac charging down on me. Bam! He hits me with a vicious karate chop right where my shoulder is connected to my neck and I dropped to the ground like a sack of dead meat. This crazy bastard then jumped on me and dragged me up by my shirt.
"Did you think you could get away with stealing my car!" He was now screaming in my face and veins were popping out on his forehead.
"What the hell are you talking about," I yelled back. "Here look, I have the keys in my hand, this is my car!"
By then I was in shock, but I still managed to look past him up the street, where yes, I saw my car sitting two parking spaces down. My car matched his car exactly, same model, same color."
Unfortunately, "Crazy little satellite" was never released.
Ed Wingate & The Golden World Studios
Detroit in the early sixties was a hotbed for small independent record labels. Dennis was starting to get calls for session work due to his good reputation and the fact that he could sight read music! Dennis says -
"The most difficult part of recording was learning how to play guitar lines and fill-ins that didn't interfere or cover up the vocalist even if they were overdubbed later on. To be a good studio player, you had to sight read music and play the right feel and attitude to compliment both the artist and the song. I started getting more calls for recording sessions especially since I began recording for Ed Wingate, the owner of Golden World Studios and Ric Tic Records on Davison in Detroit. At Ed's Golden World Studios, I used to see Motown musicians, Benny Benjamin, James Jamerson, and Eddie Willis moonlighting until they were caught and fined by Motown. Ed's label, Ric-Tic Records was gaining momentum by releasing such hits as "Agent Double 0 Soul" by Edwin Starr; "Romeo and Juliet," by the Reflections, and "Real Humdinger," by J.J. Barnes. Golden World was a state-of-the-art studio that had a high ceiling for string and horn overdubs along with an impressive recording console. Ed Wingate was the only person in Detroit who presented any kind of serious threat to the Motown dynasty of Berry Gordy. Ed used Motown staffers on midnight sessions at Golden World, and placed saxophonist Mike Terry and percussionist and tambourine player extraordinare, Jack Ashford on weekly retainers".
At this point, the Golden World Studios were equipped with all the latest recording gear and audio technology, even more impressive than the one at Hitsville, Motown's studio on Grand Boulevard, according to Dennis. The first time he visited them to record he had just started using a solid body Fender Stratacaster, because he thought the Gibson Byrdland guitar was too mellow and didn't have the right sound for R&B records. Guitar players Don Davis and Eddie Willis were also both on the session. Over to Dennis -
"At both Golden World and Motown we usually recorded three or four songs a session, which was three hours long. This was not easy because we never heard the song or saw the music before we walked into the studio each day. I remember getting paid overtime at Golden World, but I don't remember getting paid too much overtime at Motown because they had it down to a science. Motown used the same basic musicians in the studio day-after-day, and as a result, the musicians got very proficient at making great records."
Dennis first met Mike at the Golden World Studios. Mike originally played the drums in teen clubs but like Dennis found himself at their point of meeting drifting into the record arranging and production areas. The first arrangement Dennis eve did was on The Holidays' "I'll love you forever". Don Davis had asked Dennis to write some "sweetening" arrangements for horns and violins. As Don's budget was limited, Dennis also hired some local music students from Wayne State University to play strings on the session. Mike approached Dennis (knowing he had done the arranging fr The Holidays), as he had been offered an arranging job for Scepter Records, and it needed both a full string and horn section. Mike had only written for horns, but never for violins, violas or cellos. He suggested that they could split the arranging fee if Dennis could do the string section. Dennis recalls, "I agreed as after all, I thought to myself, I've already done it once - I'm almost an expert!" They met the following night as Mike's house on Montana in Highland Park close to Woodward Avenue and collaborated on the arrangements for rhythm, horns and strings. Their first work together was on Jack Montgomery's, "Dearly beloved" b/w "Do you believe it".
Once they discovered how well they worked together, they dfecided to form a record production company, naming it Theo-Coff Productions. In addition to the projects they did at Golden World,they also began to use a studio on Livernois in Detroit called Tera Shirma. Two brothers, Ralph and "Corky" Teranna, were it's owners, and indeed played keyboards and guitar, respectively and were both part of the group called the Sunliners, which eventually became Rare Earth. Over to Dennis -
"I was still playing with a bar band when we brought in other local bar bands and recorded them at 3:00 AM every night after work trying to get something going. Finally, we hit pay dirt after we produced a record on the Sunliners and sent the demo tape out to Clarence Avant in New York. Clarence was the president of the Maverick record company, which was distributed by MGM. When Clarence listened to the tape, he signed the group to the label and Mike and myself as producers. Six months later Clarence also signed me as an artist and we finally had access to a national label and an outlet for our productions. Maverick released an album on The Sunliners that didn't do very well because of lack of promotion. Maverick then released one of my singles, which was an instrumental version of the Isley Brothers, "It's Your Thing" and it went up to number one in Detroit but didn't hit the charts nationally. Shortly afterwards, MGM pulled the plug on the record label and my career and Theo-Coff Productions died in midstream as everything slowly came to a screeching halt. We recorded a version of the song "Get Ready" on the Sunliner's debut album for MGM, but when the group hired a new manager, who got them a deal with Motown, they changed their name to Rare Earth. They also re-recorded "Get Ready" live because they felt that approach would better capture the essence of their sound. The new strategy paid off for Motown and Rare Earth because the live version of "Get Ready" became a tremendous hit. We had a contract with Rare Earth when they were the Sunliners, so Clarence Avant negotiated a small percentage of their royalties (a percentage of sales) from Motown for us, so we did make a little money off of the live version of their hit".
Mike Theodore and Dennis later signed up exclusively with Clarence Avant and his new record label in California called Sussex, both as staff record producers and Dennis also as an artist.
Working at Motown
Dennis has many a tale of recording sessions and the many characters he encounterd. Here's a few words about the days at Motown -
"As I entered the building at Golden World to play guitar in the workshop, a uniformed guard behind a desk looked up and asked me to sign in. I picked up the pen, wrote my name in the book, and climbed the stairs on my right. After I reached the top of the stairs, I entered a well-lit room and saw that Jamerson, the Motown bass player was here and already set up.
Jamerson was an original character with the world's first attitude. He was about my height and weight, which was 5'10, 175 pounds, and sported a wicked Fu-Manchu style moustache...and could play the hell out of a bass guitar. Along with the original drummer Benny Benjamin, they really were the funky foundation for the Motown Sound. Jamerson usually wore black tee shirts, a black beret, Levi's and a brown leather belt with a small western buckle. He introduced me to the other workshop members, Ted Sheely on keyboards, Eddie Willis on guitar, Bongo Eddie on congas, and a new drummer called "Spider." Ted Sheely was a quiet guy, a real gentleman and very easy to work with. He just sat at the piano or electric keyboard, read the music, and played what he was asked to play. I never saw him much on the sessions at Hitsville, but I thought he could play very well. Of course Motown already had Earl Van Dyke and Johnny Griffith who were such killer keyboard players.
Eddie Willis was one of the funkiest guitar players using his Gibson 335 hollow body guitar in the studio because the original Gibson Firebird he used at the workshop and on a lot of Motown sessions, was broken. A Gibson Firebird was a thin, solid body guitar with a weird, obtuse shape. It had a sharp edged sound that cut through an entire orchestra. (I knew this first hand, because I also owned a Firebird. In the nineties I lent it to The Henry Ford Museum for their Motown exhibit). After Motown moved out of Detroit, Eddie went on the road with the Four Tops. I'm not sure what he's doing now but I think he is married and lives in Mississippi.
Eddie "Bongo" Brown hailed originally from Memphis, and was the funky groove meister at the workshop, and played percussion on most of the recording sessions I did at Motown. Eddie also played the fantastic conga solo during the percussion break on one of my instrumental hits entitled "Scorpio". He didn't believe in reading music. I used to wonder why he was always grinning to himself over there while we were running down our parts in the song, until I once looked at his music stand during a session and saw the latest girlie magazine. One time, I invited Bongo to a party at my house in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills. Although I was born and raised in Detroit, at the time I lived in the suburbs. My house was a two-story brick and aluminum home on a pie shaped lot at the end of a cul-de-sac in a well-manicured subdivision. At the party, I was standing in my living room, having a drink with a few of the guests when I happened to glance out of my front picture window to see a light green Volkswagen Bug go by. Five minutes later, I saw it go by again and it finally dawned on me who it was. It was Bongo driving by my house for the second time in his green bug. I ran out into the street, shouted at him, and tried to wave him in. He just kept right on going like he didn't even know I was there. I waited until he went by again, but this time I ran after him waving and shouting even louder. On the fourth time around, he finally saw me. He stopped in front of my house and I ran over to his car, "Man, what's wrong with you?" I shouted at him. "Didn't you see me waving?"He leaned out of his car window and grinned sheepishly. "Shit! Coffey, is that you? Damn, I thought you was some crazy white guy trying to run me out of his neighborhood."
Spider was the young drummer at the workshop. I don't know where he came from originally, because he was kind of quiet and never mentioned it. He played on a few sessions at Hitsville, notably the double time drum cymbal part on "Cloud Nine." After that he disappeared from the scene and I really never heard where he went."
To the right are just a few of the many tracks that Dennis played on / produced or had a hand in making!
Let us not forget that he has also worked with some of the biggest names in pop music ever, including -
Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs Martha Reeves
Johnny & The Hurricanes, Tommy Boyce
From Dennis Coffey:
Hello. Welcome to my web page. First, I would like to thank David Flynn for putting my web page on his site, and secondly I would like to thank all of my fans over the years for supporting my music!
Update: Last week I was at Pac 3 Recording Studios in Dearborn, Michigan working on my latest project producing an exciting new artist, Jonah Frank. On the production team was my partner and friend, Mike Theodore, and my son James. In the band was my friend of many years bassist, Bob Babbitt and my LA buddy, drummer, Ed Green. The recording engineer was another old friend, studio owner Richard Becker. I wrote the arrangements and overdubbed electric and acoustic guitars. The electric guitar I used was my trusty Gibson Firebird, the very same one I used on all of the Northern Soul and Motown records! My trusty Firebird still has a sweet magical sound! After the session, Jonah said, "I have worked with other musicians in the studio but this is the first time I actually got the guitar parts I heard in my head. I really liked the additional parts and solo that you added as well." The Firebird has sung its song again! I have lost count of all the hits Bob Babbitt, Ed Green and I had recorded in our individual careers but we still enjoy every minute we spend in the studio. Thanks again and enjoy!
Dennis Coffey - August '01
...and appeared on TV with:
...and in clubs with:
Dennis' first big break came backing a local singer called Vic Gallon, on a couple of songs. Dennis had to provide a band to accompany Vic, with the promise of $15.00 per song, taking about two hours in a recording studio. Once again, Here's Dennis to pick up on the story -
"Lee Stage was 23 years old. I first met him when he answered an ad I placed in the newspaper for a bass player. He worked at a tough hillbilly bar on Woodward in downtown Detroit, and was always accompanied by a nice looking girlfriend who kept a nickel-plated .25 caliber automatic in her purse. Larry Blockno was a muscular blond haired, blue-eyed kid of Polish decent, who played the drums in my Rock & Roll band at school. On the day of the session, we met Vic at a small basement studio located on the northwest side of Detroit. Vic greeted us warmly, and played his songs on guitar while he sang. We had never heard the songs until that day. There was no music so we began to create the parts we would play on the record. Vic had a good rockabilly voice, and the desire to record and release his own record. I was really excited to be there because this was the first time I had ever been in a real recording studio, and I was getting paid as well!
Vic counted off the first song, an upbeat rockabilly tune named "I'm Gone", and began singing and strumming rhythm guitar. I played rockabilly finger style in the verses while Larry added a strong drum beat and Lee followed along with a solid bass line. In the middle of the song, I kicked out a super raunchy guitar solo. It sounded authentic in the style of the fifties, and considering I was only 15 years old at the time, it was damn impressive! We kept recording the first song until Vic listened to the play back one last time, and agreed it was a final take.
The second track was a country ballad called, "I'll keep Lovin' You." I created a guitar riff in the introduction that Vic thought was so fantastic; he used it again in the middle of the song. After a few takes, we finally got the one he was looking for.
Later, Vic sent me a Disc Jockey copy of the record on his label, Gondola. I played it on my Hi Fidelity record player at home, and I was in musical heaven as this was the first time I ever heard myself play guitar on record and I was ecstatic. A few days later, Vic called me up again. "Hey Dennis," he said excitement in his voice. "Listen to country radio station WEXL tomorrow at 4:00 in the afternoon. I'm going to be interviewed and get the record played."
I was so excited, I could hardly sleep that night. I was actually going to hear myself play guitar on the radio.
The next day I turned on the station with the radio volume up full blast. Sure enough, Vic came on the air, and introduced us as the back up musicians. The Disc Jockey then played both songs. Man, when I heard myself playing guitar on the radio for the first time, I felt great. What a rush! I was addicted.
The record we recorded that day wasn't properly promoted so it never sold a lot of copies. "I'm Gone" wasn't picked up by a major label either which was too bad, because it could have really done something. Our first record was a major disappointment for Vic and the rest of us because we all thought it had a chance to make it big.
I still have that record today. In fact, a record collector drove all the way up to Detroit from Columbus, Ohio and offered to buy it from me, but I wouldn't sell. "How in the hell did you find out about a record on a home town label that only released one record, and only pressed about 400 copies in Ohio?" I asked the collector.
"Someone I know worked at a record pressing plant in Indianapolis where they found a copy, and thought it was an excellent example of the rockabilly genre of that period," he explained."