Motown records was such a Detroit piece of work. All cities develop their own distinct character. Detroit could be fairly described as a scrappy town. This could explain why world class tunes began to come out of a low rent house on Grand Boulevard. Back in the 60s few people knew the importance of what was going on, like musicians practicing in the back yard while another group was either in the living room or the garage creating magic on a super fast schedule. Who were these people with so much talent? What kind of musicians were willing to put up with this low budget seat of the pants operation? A lot of the artists were the usual suspects, jazz artists, These legendary musicians were genetically equipped to put up with stuff, shift gears, improvise and create memorable tunes.
MOTOWN… MY TAKE
At the time when Motown was just taking off I worked for New Center Studios, a commercial art studio in Detroit. New Center was one of many commercial art studios that served the Motor City’s vibrant advertising community. The business took up two floors of the Penobscot Building which were packed with overworked and underpaid artists. Jobs would often come in around 5PM, and sometimes the same jobs were due the next morning. To get this done a bunch of talented creative types had to work in unison under pressure, a lot like what I found at Motown Records.
I had to go through the back door and up two flights of stairs to the attic to deliver artwork to Motown’s Art Director who was working on the album artwork. Bob Folster was in his first job in the art biz.. Bob was as green as the bottom of our fish bowl when we came back from vacation. Both Bob and Motown would become good at what they did. From my perspective and based on what I saw at that moment, I didn’t give this enterprise much of a chance of going anywhere.
What did I get wrong?
THERE WERE THE TALENTED UNKNOWN ARTISTS WHO NEEDED TO BE MOLDED INTO HEADLINERS
THERE WAS THE DETROIT STORY
“Hitsville U.S.A.” is the nickname given to Motown‘s first headquarters. A former photography studio located at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan,
The house was open 22 hours a day. Artists were given golden opportunities and limiting contracts. They saw opportunity and came to work.
“To Motown’s stars, the four wooden steps leading down to Hitsville’s basement were a bridge to their land of dreams. But to the studio musicians who shaped the Motown sound, the stairs were a gateway to a workplace, a cramped, smoke stained, dimly lit room they affectionately dubbed “The Snake pit.” due to all the cable running out of the ceiling,”
Berry Gordy eventually moved the label to Los Angeles and established the Hitsville West studio there, as a part of his focus on television and film production as well as music production.
Motown Records was Berry Gordy’s idea, and he made it a success.He deserves all the credit he has received for his vision and his entrepreneurial skills. His life story has inspired books and plays. He started with an $800 family loan, a boatload of confidence and shrewd business instincts, and both he and his record company ended up as house hold names.
WHAT I DIDN’T CONSIDER WHEN I VISITED HITSVILLE USA WAS THAT THOSE GUYS GOING IN AND OUT OF THE HOUSE WERE MOSTLY SEASONED DETROIT JAZZ MUSICIANS, THEY WERE THE FUNK BROTHERS.
Funk Brothers Joe Messina, Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, Bob Babbitt and Richard “Pistol” Allen perform at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge.
THIS BAND OF MUSICIANS WERE PROBABLY JUST AS RESPONSIBLE FOR MOTOWN’S SUCCESS AS BERRY GORDY.. THEY WROTE THE SONGS THAT HAVE LASTED ALL THESE YEARS
Standing in the Shadows of Motown
The “Funk Brothers” were utterly unknown until this remarkable documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown made them famous around the world. Most of what I know about this period of Detroit’s music has come from watching this film over and over., The film is packed with joyous camaraderie and stories of survival.
Dennis Coffey is one of the Detroit artists featured in the 2002 film “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown,” His guitar licks contributed to the development of some of the most cherished and important popular music of the 20th Century.
Like so many Detroit jazz musicians Dennis Coffey seems to show up when some interesting music is brewing. As a member of the legendary Funk Brothers he backed his share of hits for Motown, For good or for bad he introduced the wah-wah guitar pedal to Motown in the Temptations’ classics Cloud Nine, Ball Of Confusion, and Just My Imagination. and the resulting influence on all kinds of popular music reverberate to this day.
He played on numerous of Motown’s hit records including number one singles like The Supremes Someday We’ll Be Together.
In 1971, Dennis Coffey recorded the million selling single”Scorpio” The instrumental track featured the legendary Motown funk brother Bob Babbitt on bass. Coffey played his hit song Scorpio on the television showSoul Train, and became the first white artist to perform on the show.
Dennis tells this and more in his memoir, Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars.
One night when Dennis was playing at the Dirty Dog, Sixto Rodriguez name came up. He was the subject of the 2012 Oscar-winning film Searching for Sugar Man which everyone was talking about. Dennis offhandedly mentioned that he worked with the folk-rock singer-songwriter Rodriguez and was a part of this remarkable Detroit story. Dennis played lead guitar on Rodriguez’s first album Cold Fact .
It is strange that we always look back and think about the “good old” days. Those days when we worked really hard, created our best stuff and complained freely out loud. We look back at times when as a community we accomplished great things. We look back at a time before we escaped into our comfortable private success.
COMING TO THE DIRTY DOG: DENNIS COFFEY
APRIL 12 – APRIL 15
Rather than looking back, I think we should look forward to the good times ahead. This coming Wednesday through Saturday Dennis Coffey will bring his newest group to the Dirty Dog.
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