I asked the former Motown musician, Dennis Coffey who played on scores of hits for acts like Stevie Wonder and The Jackson Five about his earliest beginnings as a musician. After Motown Coffey then went on to create music for film. We thank him for sharing his experiences in the music industry.
Hi Emmett. I first began studying guitar at the age of 12. My cousins Jim and Marilyn Thompson who lived in Copper City Michigan were playing guitars and showed me a few songs and when I went back to Detroit, I began studying the guitar.
I did my first record date and took two guitar solos at the age of 15. You can find the record on YouTube. It is called “I’m Gone” by Vic Gallon.
My advice to beginning musicians is practice, practice and practice some more. I used to practice eight hours a day when I was on summer break from school. The next thing is to join a band and play for people. I was playing a show every Friday and Saturday at the age of 16. I was also a harmony and theory major at Wayne State University and learned how to sight read and write music.
I liked Chuck Berry, BB King and Wes Montgomery. I got to know Wes and went to hear him when he was playing in Detroit.
At Motown we recorded tracks every day for all the artists. The arrangers and producers were the only ones with us on the sessions.
Our job at Motown was to walk in the studio, play an arrangement we never saw before, record one song an hour without any mistakes and make hit records. We did that all day long. The Funk Brothers worked together as a team to make great records. We were also friends. One thing I remember is when I was doing sessions at Motown every day in LA, I got a call from them to play with the Jackson Five at a show. I asked when the rehearsal was. (I had just gone to a rehearsal with Barbara Streisand and a 60 piece orchestra for an upcoming show with her). They told me the guitar player quit or got fired at the rehearsal so I would have to do the show without a rehearsal. The Jackson Five included both Michael and Janet. Motown reminded me they were paying me union scale and one half for every session I did in LA so I had to do this. I played the show without the rehearsal and it was a great.
I was writing orchestral charts along with Mike Theodore and one day I wondered what it would sound like if I wrote horn and string like parts for guitars. I wrote ten songs and Mike and I produced the session. I learned how to use breakdowns from Motown producer Norman Whitfield. I just broke the song down and Bob Babbitt came up with this incredible bass solo. I also had funk brothers Eddie Bongo Brown on congas, Jack Ashford on tambourine, Uriel Jones and Pistol Allen on drums and I played guitar. I also overdubbed nine guitars on the melody as the Detroit Guitar Band. I had Funk Brother Earl Van Dyke on piano on Scorpio.
Most musicians in Metro Detroit are out of work because our governor closed the restaurants and bars. I wrote and recorded the main theme and love theme for the film Black Belt Jones for Warner Brothers when I lived in LA. My latest CD out is “Down by the River” on the Detroit Music Factory/Mack Avenue Records. I decided to leave that label and am looking for a new record label who will support what I do.
BY FRED LITTLE
performed in Nina Simone’s house in Charlotte that is being renovated.