Any conversation about the brilliance of Motown that doesn’t eventually touch on the Funk Brothers and subsequently guitarist Dennis Coffey is a flawed one. A survivor of the Tamla snake pit, Coffey was key in helping to introduce a grittier texture to the label's sound, with his legendary wah-wah guitar gracing tracks such as the Temptations’ classic “Ball of Confusion” and the Undisputed Truth’s monumental “Smiling Faces,” among others. His solo career in the 1970s is a breakbeat goldmine and produced one bona fide smash in the instrumental “Scorpio.” Though the past looms large on Coffey’s 2011 self-titled release, the album never feels stubbornly retro or pandering.
Too rarely, some small justice gets meted out in the music biz; in the 21st century, legendary Detroit guitarist and Motown Funk Brother Dennis Coffey is getting some. Hip-hop and electronic music fans have long sought his seminal recordings for Sussex and his voluminous session dates. His appearance in the 2002 film Standin' in the Shadows of Motown, his autobiography Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars, and three different late-2000s compilations re-upped his profile.
If you haven’t heard it in a while, put on Freda Payne’s 1970 hit “Band of Gold”—the one where she and her husband stay in separate rooms on their honeymoon—and listen to that opening guitar riff. THAT’s Dennis Coffey, and his riff’s steely wah-wah and flatted final note set the scene for all the shit that’s about to go down. That riff is the rising curtain, the operatic overture, the Bernard Herrmann title music to Payne’s horrific sex-deprived nightmare.
Alison Krauss & Union Station Few singers do plaintive as well as Alison Krauss, with the whispers, feathery quavers and reedy resignation in her voice. After her musical and commercial triumph with Robert Plant on the 2007 album “Raising Sand” — and, Mr. Plant has said, the beginnings of a sequel that were scrapped — she’s back to plaintive with her string band, Union Station, on “Paper Airplane” (Rounder).
Funk legend Coffey revisits his back catalogue with a lot of help from some friends. David Katz 2011 Dennis Coffey is a musician of rare pedigree. His recording career actually stretches back to the 1950s, though he is best known for the wah-wah and guitar distortion he brought to Motown’s hit releases of the late 1960s while a member of the Funk Brothers house band, as heard on immortal records such as Cloud Nine and Ball of Confusion by The Temptations and Edwin Starr’s War to name but a few.