DENNIS COFFEY Big City Funk (Vampi Soul) Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Even if Dennis Coffey's name doesn't ring any bells, anyone familiar with songs like the Temptations' Cloud Nine and Ball Of Confusion, Edwin Starr's War and the Undisputed Truth's Smiling Faces Sometimes will recognize the sound of the Detroit guitar star. His searing signature distortion helped drag Motown's squeaky-clean Sound of Young America kicking and screaming into the funk era.
But like those of his Motown sessioner cohorts the Funk Brothers, Coffey's innovative contributions to many Motor City million-sellers by the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and others have gone uncredited and unrecognized for years. Even the film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown seemed to give Coffey short shrift.
Considering that Coffey's own certified funk classic Scorpio has been notably sampled by Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Mos Def, Rage Against the Machine and Roni Size, it's incredible that no one has released a collection of Coffey's break-heavy music from the early 70s until now.
The 15-track Big City Funk CD, assembled for Spain's Vampi Soul label by compiler-for-hire James Maycock, collects the very best of Coffey's long- deleted Sussex LPs, focusing on the breakthrough Evolution album from 71, with additional head-nodders and dance-floor destroyers from 72's Goin' For Myself, 73's Electric Coffey and 74's Instant Coffey that will be familiar to break-spotting hiphop fans.
Although Maycock has done a reasonably good job of sifting through previously published information (Coffey's fab book Guitars, Bars And Motown Superstars is an excellent resource) for his drab liner notes, conspicuously absent are Coffey's own insights. Evidently Coffey wasn't consulted about the Big City Funk collection, which is intriguing in itself because Coffey isn't difficult to locate.
"This is the first I've heard of it," says Coffey from his suburban Detroit home.
"At one point, EMI was going to release a compilation of my Sussex material through its Right Stuff subsidiary I wrote the liner notes for it and everything but for some reason they never put it out."
Coffey's just recorded a new small combo jazz album, Live At Baker's, and he'll be showcasing at South By Southwest in March, so he's well aware that his recordings were used by producers as raw materials for hiphop hits.
He also knows he's owed a lot more than the sincere gratitude of Chuck D, who at least gave Coffey a public shout-out for being the genius behind the four minutes of hard-thumping breakbeat nirvana known as Scorpio.
How exactly our man Coffey arrived at the unusual idea of assembling a guitar orchestra to record the tune requires some explanation.
"Mike Theodore and I were signed to Sussex as house producers whose job it was to find artists and put together recording projects. One of the first things we recorded was Scorpio. We were always writing charts for horns and strings, and I wondered what would happen if I substituted guitar parts for what was played by the other instruments in the orchestra. So I wrote Scorpio and sat down in my basement overdubbing guitar parts for the melody and horn stabs. I played it for Mike, and he thought it was great.
"So I wrote out the rhythm parts for the 10 songs I'd composed for the album and then brought in all the Motown guys Bob Babbitt, Jack Ashford, Bongo Eddie, Earl Van Dyke, Uriel Jones and Pistol Allen and gave them the charts and said, "Let's just have some fun do whatever you want!'
"That's Ashford and Bongo Eddie going crazy during the breakdowns. The guitar parts were divided between Ray Monette from Rare Earth, Joe Podorsek and myself like horn parts, so what you hear is actually nine guitars playing the melody.
"(Sussex boss) Clarence Avant played the demo for Quincy Jones to get a second opinion, and Quincy loved it. That became the Evolution album."
Initial sales of the Detroit Guitar Orchestra concept LP were so poor that Coffey had forgotten all about the album.
"I'd moved on to other sessions when I got a call from our New York promo man, Bob Mosley. "They're playing Scorpio to death in clubs here!' he shouted. "We need to put Scorpio out as a single right away and re-service all the DJs.' That's what we did, and it took off like a bullet.
"Years later, I was doing a session with Quincy for his Body Heat album. He smiled and said, "I knew that Scorpio song was a hit from the first time I heard it. '"