Dennis Coffey, member of Motown’s Funk Brothers, brings Detroit’s musical history alive at Northern Lights Lounge.
By Andy Reid
Photography by Erin Kirkland
Every Tuesday night for the last 11 years, the myth and reality of Dennis Coffey, the legendary guitar player of the famous Funk Brothers of Motown, coalesce at Northern Lights Lounge in Detroit. Coffey, along with some of the best musicians in the city, play at the bar every week, with no cover charge, usually to a packed crowd.
At a table near the back, two regulars eagerly await Coffey’s set.
“You know, Dennis and Jimi Hendrix were friends in the army?” one of the men says, smiling. The other man laughs and nods, knowing this is a good one. The story goes like this: While both were stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as part of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, they did basic training together.
Coffey and Hendrix were flown up for parachute training, and their sergeant swung the door open. Dennis looked at Jimi and asked, “Are you ready?”
“Hell yes!” Hendrix yelled, before pausing in front of the door. “You go first.”
The truth: Coffey and Hendrix were, in fact, in the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell at the same time. But, Coffey says, they never actually crossed paths.
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the truth from the tall tales told by friends, fans and family, because the real story of Coffey and his career is just as unbelievable. He has shared the stage with Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand and the Jackson 5. He has played guitar on records by The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes and other Motown legends. His solo song, “Scorpio,” rose all the way to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972.
He has also earned a degree in education from Wayne State University and worked as a technical writer for Ford Motor Company, but the one constant in his life has been music.
“I am a musician because I have a passion for the music,” he said before a recent Northern Lights Lounge show. “I never thought I would make money at it. That is the key. That’s what I do, and I was just determined to be the best musician I could be.”
Coffey, 78, says his mom used to tell him that he could name every song on the radio when he was 2 years old. The family used to say he inherited his musical talent from his Aunt Aune, who could sight read ragtime sheet music without any mistakes into her 90s.
When Coffey was 12, his dad bought him a $15 Harmony guitar from a pawn shop, and that was it. Three years later, at age 15, Coffey was hired for his first studio gig, laying down two guitar solos for the 1956 record “I’m Gone,” by Vic Gallon.
By 16, Coffey was playing at teen clubs in northwest Detroit every Friday and weddings every Saturday. He enlisted in the army directly after high school, because he was too young to play in bars, but continued to play during his tour of duty. While stationed in South Carolina, he was hired by a label in New York to do his first solo recording.
“Only they said, ‘You can’t have a hit with a name like Dennis Coffey,’ so they named me Clark Summit.”
He’s not even sure where the producers came up with the name, but there is a town called Clark Summit, Pennsylvania. The record never caught on.
“I don’t know what they were thinking,” he says. “I never had a hit until I used my own name.”
Within weeks of the end of his tour of duty, he was playing six nights a week all over the city and started working for Berry Gordy and Motown.
The Northern Lights Lounge show is a celebration of the Motown and rock sounds that Coffey has spent his whole life playing.
The staff at the bar say it’s the best night of the week, and oftentimes they’ll lay claim to a Tuesday night shift. There are regulars, newcomers and people who come into town specifically for the show. Twice a year, a group of Motown lovers from Ireland make the trip to Detroit to see Coffey’s show and take in the city.
Lady Champagne is a powerful blues singer who has played with Coffey for six years. He saw her at another gig and asked him to join him on stage — she’s been singing at Northern Lights every third and fourth Tuesday of the month ever since.
“It’s an honor to play with Dennis because he’s a legendary Motown recording artist, and he has done it all,” Lady Champagne says. “And for someone to come to Northern Lights and see him for free, that is pretty great.”
The first 20 minutes of the show are all instrumental, and Coffey shreds while organist Shawn McDonald and drummer Djollo Djakate accompany him. His guitar playing is mesmerizing, and people start moving closer to the stage to watch his fingers fly effortlessly over the frets.
Coffey sings “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry before inviting Lady Champagne on stage for a rousing rendition of “Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin, followed by “My Girl” — switched to “My Guy” for Lady Champagne’s personal taste — by The Temptations, all while Coffey expertly plays guitar amid myriad styles and genres.
McDonald first played with Coffey about four years ago, but the two met in the 1990s, when they were both at Ford. They bonded over being musicians, but, at the time, McDonald didn’t realize he was talking to a Detroit legend.
“He told me he was a musician, and I said, ‘I am a musician, too!’ ” McDonald says. “I got to learn a little bit about him. He’s a quiet guy, but when I learned about his history, I was blown away. He brought in some records he’d done, and he was like, ‘Do you know ‘Ball of Confusion?’ And I said, ‘You mean, you played with The Temptations?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Coffey’s music career has taken him all over the world. He’s lived in New York and Los Angeles and has spent time in some of the biggest music communities in the country.
But the pull of Detroit has always been too strong.
“Music is really in the DNA in Detroit,” says Coffey, who now resides in Farmington. “Berry Gordy told me he could have never started Motown in any city but Detroit, because of the talent here. It’s a very musical city. I have lived in New York and LA, and they’re not as musical as Detroit. What’s happening is you can go anywhere in Detroit and hear any kind of music you like, seven nights a week.”
From Motown to Detroit Rock City to hip-hop and the birth of techno, Detroit has a creative musical culture that has thrived for decades.
“It’s the best musical city in the world,” Coffey says. “There are up-and-coming players all the time. Detroit is where it’s at. Detroit has its own sound and style, and these little groups pop up in this city and grow and build something new. That’s what Motown was: a regional sound that went international, because Barry Gordy was the originator, and he knew how to make that happen.”