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A Funky Sleeper Favorite Gets Its Due


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Dennis Coffey was one of Detroit's most prolific session guitarists in the late '60s and '70s. hide caption

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Thursday's Pick

  • Song: "Scorpio"
  • Artist: Dennis Coffey
  • CD: Big City Funk
  • Genre: Funk-Rock

When guitarist Dennis Coffey originally recorded "Scorpio" for his Evolution album, he couldn't have envisioned how successful the song would become. On one hand, Coffey was accustomed to success — during the course of the late 1960s through the '70s, Coffey was one of the most prolific session guitarists in the dense Detroit recording scene. Hundreds of records that came out of Motown, Invictus and Sussex bore his blend of funk and psychedelic influences, from Edwin Starr's "War" to Diana Ross and The Supremes' glorious ballad "Someday, We'll Be Together" to Freda Payne's piercing "Band of Gold."

On the other hand, while being a noted session player was one thing, making it as a solo act was something else entirely. Coffey only needed to look at the ignominious fate of Motown's in-studio Funk Brothers outfit to know how easily the best musicians could go ignored. Evolution was meant to provide an exception to the rule, a solo Coffey effort for the newly established Sussex imprint. The album initially flopped, however — and under other circumstances, Coffey's legacy might have disappeared with it. No one counted on the staying power of "Scorpio," though.

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The song's venerability boils down to two factors. The first is Coffey's scorching decrescendo, which becomes the song's main motif, repeated four times at the onset and then again to bring in the bridge. Upon first listen, that riff sounds almost impossibly dense and gargantuan, which makes sense: It's not just one guitar line, but nine of them overdubbed by Coffey, spanning three octaves. Given its constant repetition throughout the song, it ultimately becomes as memorable as its counterparts in "Smoke on the Water" or "Sunshine of Your Love."

However, even the guitar takes a momentary backseat to the bridge, which brings in Eddie "Bongo" Brown on congas to join drummers Uriel Jones and Richard "Pistol" Allen — who, combined, lay down a monster drum break that eventually involves Jack Ashford on tambourine. This percussion quartet holds and molds the break for 24 bars (nearly a full minute) before Bob Babbitt joins in on bass, and even then, Coffey's guitar doesn't come screaming back in for another minute and a half. While a two-and-a-half-minute drum/bass break may not be the longest in music history, it's that generous groove that helped make "Scorpio" a massive hit in the clubs and gave Evolution new life.

Even after that album fell from memory, "Scorpio" (recently reissued on the Big City Funk compilation) would make a comeback in the '80s and '90s, thanks to funk-friendly hip-hop producers who saw the immense potential in looping and manipulating its hard-hitting rhythms. It was never quite as popular as the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache," or even Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie," but as a distinctive mix of Afro-Latin rhythm and Motor City psyche, it's hard to imagine a more impeccably matched creation.

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