Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Motown unites Excels, Coffey

Berry Gordy housed his Motown Record Corp.
in this building at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in
Detroit until 1972.


You might know Motown Record Corp. from gigantic hits by the Miracles, the Temptations or the Supremes, but the venerable Detroit label also has some small Upper Peninsula ties.

Music entrepreneur Berry Gordy incorporated the firm on April 14, 1960 combining Motown with the Tamla label he had founded in early 1959.

By 1961, the company struck gold with "Shop Around," a No. 1 rhythm and blues and No. 2 pop smash by the Miracles, featuring Bill "Smokey" Robinson.

Five girls from Inkster called the Marvelettes became the label's first act to reach No. 1 on the pop chart with "Please Mr. Postman" in the fall of 1961.

Gordy housed his fledgling label in a former photography studio which would become known as Hitsville USA.

With a growing roster of artists, producers, songwriters and session musicians, Motown had more than 100 Top Ten hits during the next decade.

The Miracles added to Motown's success with "You've Really Got A Hold On Me" and "Mickey's Monkey" in 1963, while the Supremes registered their first Top Ten with "Where Did Our Love Go" in 1964.

A trio from Detroit, the Supremes began their stint at Motown singing background vocals for other acts.

With successful acts like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Contours, Motown was making a name for itself around the country.

A rock group from Marquette called the Excels were paying attention to the sounds emanating from Detroit.

Comprised of Northern Michigan University students, the Excels decided to drive to the Motor City in search of a recording contract.

According to lead singer Clark Sullivan, the group made the trip to the lower peninsula in the fall of 1964.

Fresh from the U. P., the Excels pulled up to 2648 West Grand Boulevard, the headquarters of Motown.

What the black employees of Motown might have thought of five white boys from northern Michigan isn't known, but the Excels did meet the Supremes.

At that time Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard had another chart-topper to their credit called "Baby Love."

While they were impressed meeting the Supremes, the Excels realized their sound, stressing Beach Boys-style harmony, would not fit with Motown, which had an all-black stable of artists.

Undaunted, the Excels next stopped at United Sound Studio where they met Ollie McLaughlin an influential black disc jockey on WHRV radio in Ann Arbor.

McLaughlin, who owned Carla Records, showed interest in the Excels and asked them to send him a demo tape.

The Excels responded with "Run Girl Run" and "It Isn't So." McLaughlin, who is credited with discovering Del Shannon, liked the songs and signed the group.

In the early summer of 1965, the Excels returned to United Sound Studio to properly record their demos, but the songs weren't released at that time.

Experienced with years of touring, the Excels recorded "Gonna Make You Mine" and "Goodbye Poor Boy" in the summer of 1966 and followed with "I Wanna Be Free" and "Too Much Too Soon" in the fall.

During the summer of 1967, they returned to the studio to tape "Little Innocent Girl" and "Some Kind of Fun." The A side was composed by the songwriting team of Richard Wylie and Tony Hester.

Adding to its professional sheen, the track was arranged by Mike Terry and Dennis Coffey. The single was a moderate success in markets such as Winnepeg, Detroit, Monroe, Muskegon and Traverse City.

Although he grew up in Detroit, Coffey had close ties to the U. P. As a teenager in the early 1950s, Coffey visited his musically-inclined relatives who lived in the tiny Keweenaw Peninsula community of Copper City.

Coffey's cousins, Jim and Marilyn Thompson, introduced him to the guitar, showed him some basic chords and taught him how to play "Under the Double Eagle," a bluegrass standard.

Returning home, Coffey learned songs by Hank Williams Sr., a favorite around his U. P. haunts. He expanded his interests to rockabilly, rock 'n' roll, blues, rhythm & blues and jazz.

With considerable expertise on the guitar, Coffey joined the Royaltones and worked as a session guitarist for independent labels around Detroit.

In 1962, Coffey met Del Shannon and added guitar to "Little Town Flirt," which just missed the Top Ten. Coffey joined his friend again in 1965 when Shannon recorded an entire album of songs by the iconic country star titled "Del Shannon Sings Hank Williams."

By 1968, Coffey found himself working for Motown as a session guitarist. His first recording was for "Cloud Nine," a Top Ten smash for the Temptations. Coffey used his Gibson Firebird guitar for the session.

"I ad-libbed a fast wah-wah effect in the introduction. On the last verse of the song, the groove we were playing was so hot that I just had to jump in and play a solo. I cranked my volume up a bit, closed my eyes and let 'er rip," Coffey said in his autobiography, "Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars."

As a member of the Funk Brothers studio band, Coffey played on more tracks than he can remember, including numerous hits by the Temptations.

Coffey played guitar on "Someday We'll Be Together" by Diana Ross & the Supremes. Johnny Bristol produced the session, co-wrote the song and provided the male vocal. Although the song reached No. 1, Ross decided to leave the group for a solo career.

Coffey's guitar is also heard on Edwin Starr's "War," Freda Payne's "Band of Gold" and Junior Walker's "What Does It Take To Win Your Love."

Born in 1940, Coffey's career reached another high point in 1971 when his single "Scorpio," released on the Sussex label, reached No. 6 on the pop charts.

In the 40 years since then, Coffey has remained active in the music business. On April 26, he'll issue a self-titled album on the Strut label, his first new release in five years.

The Excels released five 45 rpm singles on Carla, their last disc containing the first two tracks they recorded for McLaughlin. Lead singer Clark Sullivan recorded as a solo artist when the Excels disbanded.

Looking to get involved in motion pictures, Gordy moved Motown Record Corporation to Hollywood in 1972.

Thus ended a vibrant chapter in Detroit's musical history which included some small ties to the Upper Peninsula thanks to the Excels and Dennis Coffey.

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