Thursday, October 12, 2006

Coffey learned guitar in U.P.

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A musical trail from original country superstar Hank Williams Sr. to the greatest Motown hits of the sixties and seventies goes through the Upper Peninsula.

The community which ties these diverse musical styles together is Copper City, a town of just a few hundred folks located in the Keweenaw Peninsula.

It was there in the early 1950's that a teenager from Detroit went on vacation to visit his musically inclined relatives.

"Old" Hank, who died tragically at age 29, was the most popular country & western performer of the era.

Certainly that popularity extended into tiny Copper City, temporary home to a 13-year-old visitor named Dennis Coffey. "I used to visit there every summer to see my grandparents on my mother's side," he recalled. "They were Finns and their last name was Rinne."

Coffey's U. P. cousins, Jim and Marilyn Thompson, played guitar and sang country music, hooking the Detroit native on the sounds emanating from the six-stringed instrument.

"The first song I ever learned to play lead guitar on was probably (bluegrass standard) 'Under the Double Eagle.' My cousins taught me that song and how to play some basic chords," Coffey told me. The aspiring guitarist set about practicing, even when he returned home to the lower peninsula, using an old Hawaiian slide guitar he received as a gift.

Coffey also learned songs written by his favorite star, Hank Sr. In addition to country, he studied rockabilly, rock 'n' roll, blues, rhythm and blues, and jazz. His practicing paid off, too. By 1955, Coffey had added guitar to "I'm Gone," a recording by a little known performer called Vic Gallon.

In the following years, Coffey joined the Royaltones, an instrumental rock 'n' roll band, and worked as a session guitarist for independent labels around the Detroit area.

Then in 1962, Coffey met Del Shannon, a fellow Michigander who had gigantic hits with "Runaway" and "Hats Off To Larry." Coffey added guitar to the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer's "Little Town Flirt" later that year.

Shannon, it turns out, also admired Williams, and proved it by recording 12 of his songs, including "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Hey, Good Looking," for an album issued in 1965. Coffey provided guitar on the groundbreaking LP, a precursor to country/rock releases which appeared later in the decade.

Coffey had taken a funky turn by 1968, joining the staff of Berry Gordy's Motown Records, "The Sound of Young America." On his first day he crafted the memorable guitar intro to the Temptations' "Cloud Nine," a number six smash.

As a member of the legendary Funk Brothers house band, this unsung guitar hero played on more than a hundred Motown hits, including Edwin Starr's "War," Freda Payne's "Band of Gold," and Junior Walker's "What Does It Take To Win Your Love."

By 1971, Coffey was on the charts himself with the instrumental "Scorpio," an influential funk work-out on the Sussex label which reached number six on the Billboard chart and number one around the Detroit area. Along with the Detroit Guitar Band, Coffey recorded a follow-up single, "Taurus," which also struck gold.

"Scorpio," with its innovative guitar and drum breaks, has been sampled in numerous recordings in recent years, but is now sadly out-of-print. In all, Coffey recorded 13 solo albums, including a 2003 effort called "Flight of the Phoenix." He also wrote the music score for the Warner Bros. film "Black Belt Jones."

In 2002, he appeared in the documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" and published his autobiography, "Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars" in 2004.

Born in 1940, Coffey still gigs around Detroit, most notably at the world's oldest jazz club, Baker's Keyboard Lounge, where he recently recorded a live CD.

"I have performed in England and recently played at the Ponderosa Stomp in Memphis, a benefit for Katrina victims. I have also performed on the Four Tops 50th Anniversary special and the Rhythm, Love and Soul PBS special," Coffey said, bringing his activities up to date.

Despite his success, many music devotees aren't familiar with Coffey's work. Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has tried to rectify that with a display including a copy of the sheet music for "Scorpio" as well as a wah-wah pedal and fuzz tone from his Motown days.

Reflecting on his career, it's clear Coffey took his Upper Peninsula guitar inspiration on a lifelong journey that's impacted millions of fans who have enjoyed his significant, if under-recognized, contribution to modern music.

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