"At Motown we recorded with a 12-piece rhythm section every day," remembers guitarist and Funk Brother Dennis Coffey. "We did one song an hour and made it a hit. That's what we did."
Coffey wielded his six-string on countless hits for the imprint between 1967 and 1973, but he wasn't merely standing in the shadows of Motown. With late producer Norman Whitfield, Coffey helped redefine the sound of young America. In 1969, when radio deejays first placed the needle on the Temptations' "Cloud Nine," Coffey's spaced-out guitar marked a sea change in soul.
"That was the pivot point for Motown because Norman was single-handedly evolving it to more of the social commentary that was linked to the times as opposed to the romantic kind of songs they had previously done. He was changing things 180 degrees, and I was doing all the special effects and psychedelic guitar and all that other stuff."
In 1971 Coffey had his own Top 10 hit with the stinging funk of "Scorpio." The track led to him being the first white artist to perform on Soul Train, and a decade later it became a Bronx block party staple at the dawn of hip-hop.
"I was recording an album in the 1980s, and I asked the engineer to play me what the young kids were doing," Coffey recalls. "He puts on this record by Public Enemy, and I hear me playing on it! I said, 'I don't remember getting paid for that session.'"
The royalty checks eventually came, and Coffey has remained part of the culture's collective consciousness ever since. On a forthcoming eponymous LP on Strut, Coffey collaborates with R&B revivalists including Mayer Hawthorne and Kings Go Forth on a mix of new originals and covers of classics he helped craft four decades ago.
"We could keep doing this for a long time."
Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.