Guitarist Dennis Coffey may be most familiar from his 1971 instrumental hit “Scorpio” and its follow-up “Taurus.” But astute liner note readers will recognize Coffey as one of Motown’s Funk Brothers, and the player who introduced harder-edged guitar sounds into Norman Whitfield’s productions, including “Ball of Confusion” and “Psychedelic Shack.” Like many of his Motown colleagues, Coffey also played out live in Detroit clubs, and this 1968 date from Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge finds him in a trio with Lyman Woodard on Hammond B3 and Melvin Davis on drums. The group played under Woodard’s name, but Coffey’s guitar took most of the leads.
The group’s repertoire included soul, pop and jazz covers, as well as original material, the latter including Coffey’s opening showcase, “Fuzz.” The sounds encompass soul, rock, funk and jazz in equal parts, as Woodard vamped deep and low, Davis provided the groove, and Coffey took the lead lines. Coffey’s guitar is edgy even when he’s picking an upbeat take on the MOR classic “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” or playing slinky lines on “The Look of Love.” The band played from chord charts without rehearsal, fueling their performances with lively, jazz-styled improvisations. Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and Ramsey Lewis’ “Wade in the Water” remain close to their roots, but even here, the trio finds original ground to jam.
Professionally recorded on a half-inch four-track (courtesy of the then-nearby Tera Shirma studio at which Coffey worked with his partner Mike Theodore), the tapes are a world away from the hobbyist recordings one often hears from club settings. The performances are lively, and the results were good enough to score the trio a contract, which resulted in 1969’s Hair and Thangs. Woodard continued on as music director for Martha Reeves and as a jazz leader, Coffey and Davis eventually found their studio gigs drying up and signed on to day jobs. Now retired from the Ford Motor Company, Coffey is gigging weekly at the Northern Lights Lounge, and Davis has released albums on his own Rock Mill label.
In addition to the music, this archival find sheds light on the symbioses that formed between Detroit’s clubs and record labels. The clubs provided a second income stream to the musicians, but also space for players to fully express themselves. What you hear in this performance are some of the musical hearts and souls that fed Motown and other Detroit labels. The 56-page booklet includes archival photos, liner notes from producers Kevin Goins and Zev Feldman, cover art by illustrator Bill Morrison, and interviews with Coffey, Davis, Theodore and Detroit legends Bettye LaVette and Clarence Avant. There are several excellent albums of Coffey’s material, including an out-of-print Best Of, but this previously unreleased live set adds a funky new dimension to his catalog. [©2017 Hyperbolium]