(4 / 5)
A good few years before he was recruited to play guitar on many of Motown’s big hits, Dennis Coffey was tearing up a storm in the recording studios of Detroit, playing soul sessions for most of the other labels in town.
He helped shape the sound of countless hits for Detroit’s indie soul labels Golden World, Ric-Tic, Kelmac and Revilot, among others. Jack Montgomery’s “Dearly Beloved,” The Reflections’ “Just Like Romeo and Juliet” and Darrell Banks’s “Open the Door to Your Heart”, are just a few of the Northern Soul classics that Coffey played on.
At the same time, organist Lyman Woodard was the musical director for Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, while Melvin Davis was busy cutting 45s of his own as a vocalist on the Groovesville, Fortune and Mala labels and landing a number of regional hits including “This Love Was Meant To Be”, “Save It (Never Too Late)” Later to become a sought-after drummer for the likes of Smokey Robinson and The Temptations.
As Coffey’s reputation as a top funk studio guitarist grew among the movers and shakers of the Detroit music scene, on the recommendation of legendary Motown bass player James Jamerson, producer Norman Whitfield recruited Coffey to play on records he was producing for Motown.
Coffey became established as a ‘Funk Brother’, a member of one of the world’s pre-eminent studio ensembles, which formed the backbone of countless Motown hit records and which was the subject of the celebrated Grammy-winning feature-length documentary film, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” (2002), in which Coffey is featured.
The music on this album, “Hot Coffey in the D: Burnin’ At Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge”, represents the trio of Coffey (guitar), Woodward (Hammond B-3 organ) and Davis (drums) in a raw and unfiltered display of their prodigious musical gifts, from the trio’s residency at the venue. Recorded in 1968, all tracks previously unreleased until now.
These recordings that make up this album served as the springboard for Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore to be picked up by Clarence Avant on his own Sussex Records label, effectively launching their producing career in earnest. Another springboard was the seminal soul-funk instrumental album, “Hair and Thangs”, which was released on the Maverick label (distributed by Venture Records) in 1969 under Dennis’s name; featuring both Lyman Woodard and Melvin Davis, and included a psychedelic version of the Isley Brother’s hit “It’s Your Thing”.
On Norman Whitfield’s productions for Motown, Coffey contributed to the evolving soul and funk sound coming out of Detroit by introducing guitar innovations like fuzz-tone distortion, Echoplex tape delay and wah-wah, previously the exclusive province of rock and roll players.
This new style developed by Coffey can be heard on such mega-hits as the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” Edwin Starr’s “War,” and the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll be Together,” among many others. The demand for Coffey’s magic touch led to appearances on recordings by Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and many others.
Coffey, along with his producing partner, Mike Theodore (co-producer with Coffey of the original recordings that make up this album), also produced recordings for many successful artists, as well as hit projects of their own. The iconic music executive Clarence Avant engaged Coffey and Theodore, through their production company Theo-Coff, to produce sessions, create arrangements and write songs for projects he released on his labels, Maverick/Venture and Sussex Records.
As producers, writers and talent scouts, Coffey and Theodore looked beyond soul and funk and ventured into rock, pop, folk and Latin. Coffey and Theodore discovered and produced albums by Sixto Rodriguez, the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012).
Coffey may have been making magic in the studios during the daylight hours, but by night, he and fellow Detroit soul and studio funk masters organist Lyman Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis were filling Detroit clubs as a jazz/funk ensemble billed as the Lyman Woodard Trio, fronted by Coffey’s distinctive guitar playing and arrangements.
In 1967, the trio began an extended tenure at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, where this set was recorded. In their sets to packed houses every night, they rarely played the same material twice, and mixed up funk, jazz, rock and soul.
Here among the seven cuts of circa 55 minutes duration, we are offered a cover of soul classics such as “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over)” – Coffey played on the original Ruby Andrews studio version of; a rousing version of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”; an almost 12 minute long take of the Burt Bacharach classic “The Look of Love”, the Herbie Hancock classic “Maiden Voyage”, as well as two Coffey originals: funk opus “Fuzz” which kicks off the album and the infectious “The Big D”. A lovely version of the trad’ gospel tune, “Wade In The Water” ,which closes proceedings nicely here.
The deluxe CD & LP packages feature stunning original cover art by acclaimed cartoonist and Metro Detroit native Bill Morrison, who was one of the original illustrators on The Simpsons, art director of Futurama and one of the co-founders of Bongo Comics with Matt Groening. The package also includes extensive liner notes with rare photos by acclaimed Detroit photographers such as Leni Sinclair, essays by Resonance producer Zev Feldman and veteran music journalist Kevin Goins, plus interviews with Dennis Coffey, Melvin Davis and Mike Theodore, along with music industry icon Clarence Avant and Detroit soul singer Bettye LaVette.
It’s jazzy, it’s funky, it is soulful. It is an essential listen. A superb piece of music history; testimony to the old adage; “they don’t make ‘em like that any more.”
By Simon Redley
(1 / 5) ‘Dull Zone’
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’