Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band – Scorpio


Mr. Dennis Coffey


Listen – Scorpio MP3″

Greetings all.

The end of the week is upon us at last. I’d like to breathe a sigh of relief but if I did I might pass out from exhaustion.
This is much more emotional than physical. It’s just one of those times that I couldn’t be sicker of working for a living, and find myself reeling from encounters with epic stupidity that boggle the mind (the product of boggled minds??).
I ought to be thrilled that Friday is here, yet all I want to do is take my fevered brain out for the weekend and soak it in a big bowl of ice water until it returns to it normal, withered self.
Normally, any sane person would react to such a state of affairs by shutting down and backing away from the keyboard slowly, but as you well know, I’m not that person, so here I sit (tap, tap, tap…).
I was driving home from work this afternoon, trying not to get killed on the Garden State Parkway (a triumph of oxymoronics…), mulling over what I had digi-ma-tized and thinking about what to post this evening.
My first thought was to load up something of an uplifting nature, guaranteed to lift the spirits and mellow out the collective unconscious with some soulful good vibes.
Then – after considerable thought, when I probably would have been better of paying attention to the great hordes of maniacal beach-bound tourists swarming around me in their Hummers – I decided to take a different tack. While I normally would respond to having my psyche dented and scraped all week by throwing a little positivity back into the mix, I decided instead to hit back (figuratively at least…).
Back in the day, when I was but a wee lad of nine summers, I first heard today’s selection, and in a then typical forest for the trees moment, wrapped my mind around its monumental guitar riff (which attacked the ears like an atomic mutation of the Batman theme) and ignored the world/life changing drums.
Now, I don’t think I’d be telling tales out of school by admitting that at the age of nine I was not the funky old soul you see before you today. Like any self-respecting kid of 1971, my ears were attuned to pop radio candy, and pretty much ate up anything I heard that wasn’t immediately identifiable as “wimpy” garbage (and even then I remember liking the odd Bobby Sherman and/or Partridge Family record). So, when I look back and remember jumping up down with my next door neighbor – who in a strange twist of fate was also named Larry – to Dennis Coffey’s ‘Scorpio’, much as we had to the Beatles ‘Hey Jude’ the year before, and then I lose myself in the uber-break today, I am verily stunned that I all but ignored it back in the day.
It is entirely possible that WABC-AM in New York was playing some drastically truncated version of ‘Scorpio’ that was in essence breakless, but it’s more likely that my nine year old ears (and the rest of me) were unprepared to absorb and react to so powerful a groove in any meaningful way.
Now, some thirty-six (cough…cough..) years hence, with hip hop almost as old as ‘Scorpio’ itself, and years of funk and soul collecting under my belt, I could probably quote the break back to you chapter and verse at a moments notice (though it’s safe to say that nobody needs to hear that).
Anyway, if you don’t know – and you should so get to Googling – Dennis Coffey spent the years leading up to ‘Scorpio’ as one of the hardest working session guitarists on the Detroit scene, working as a Funk Brother at Motown and adding memorable licks to a mountain of amazing records on Ric Tic, Revilot, Invictus/Hotwax (that’s his guitar on the Spinners ‘It’s a Shame’ and Freda Payne’s ‘Band of Gold’ to mention but a few).
Coffey’s ‘Detroit Guitar Band’ is on first glance a slightly deranged guitarist’s vanity project, until you drop the needle on the wax. The ‘Evolution’ LP does have it’s moments of axe-man self-indulgence (what album of the era doesn’t?), but it also sports some very solid funky heaviosity, the ne plus ultra of which is the mighty ‘Scorpio’.
I mentioned the history of hip hop earlier, and the ‘Scorpio’ break is one of the building blocks of the music’s early years (as well as a popular sample later on*). Back in the day when Flash and Kool Herc were spinning parties in the Bronx and rocking doubles, extending the breaks for the b-boys, ‘Scorpio’ was a major ingredient in the mix.
The record opens with Coffey’s wild kung fu/spy movie gee-tar whipping things into a frenzy. Though the funky backing is there, nobody could have been expecting what was about to come next. At around one minute ten seconds the guitar drops out and the bass drum drops in, and the listener bears ear-witness to the sound of history.
While Dennis places his axe in a dry ice-lined casket (to prevent it from bursting into flames) the entire Funk Brothers percussion juggernaut (Pistol Allen, Jack Ashford, Bongo Brown and Uriel Jones) steps to the front of the stage and whips out the mightiest break in all of recorded time.
The ‘Scorpio’ break is – like some of the best beats of the James Brown organization – a brilliant combination of clockwork precision and deep, deep soul. Not to mention the fact that the production by Mike Theodore picks up every nuance, balancing the delicate interaction between the four percussionists perfectly, giving the hi-hat, snare, congas and tambourine equal love and letting the groove within emerge to blow some minds.
I’d even go as far as to say that the ‘Scorpio’ break is also a monument to tasteful restraint. This is not five or ten seconds of funked up drum bashing by some inspired but long forgotten amateur, but rather a perfect storm of rhythm laid on you by some of the heaviest players ever to lay wood (or hands) on skins.
I can’t imagine anyone giving this record a close listen and not being carried away in a percussive reverie, all nodding of head, tapping of foot, or dare I say down on the rug spinning around in that grey area between Curly Howard and the Rock Steady Crew.
The drums are pretty much on their own until about two minutes ten seconds when someone in the background says ‘Well, well, well!’ and the bass joins the party for almost another minute and a half (?!?!?) of rumpshaking bliss before Coffey (who had to have been in the background doing the robot dance or some such) straps on his still smoking guitar for a reprise of the main theme.
This is some heavy, heavy, HEAVY shit, and in the end the perfect antidote to the brutality of the working week.
Thank you Jack Ashford, Richard Allen, Uriel Jones and Eddie Brown.
Thank you Dennis Coffey.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.

PS Head on over to Fufu Stew for a very nice new mix by my man Vincent.

Buy – Dennis Coffey – Big City Funk – at

*Records sampling ‘Scorpio’
  Busy Bee’s “Old School”
  Double D & Steinski’s “Lesson 3”
  Geto Boys’s “Do it Like a G.O.”
  House of Pain’s “All My Love”
  LL Cool J’s “Jinglin’ Baby”
  Lord Finesse’s “Keep it Flowing”
  Moby’s “Mobility”
  Mos Def’s “Universal Magnetic”
  Professor Griff’s “Bro Kemit Splitting Atoms in the Corporate War Zone”
  Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads”
  Queen Latifah’s “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children”
  Roni Size’s “Share the Fall”

  and, of course

Young MC’s “Bust a Move”

22 Responses to “Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band – Scorpio”

  1. Brian Marshall Says:

    This one is one of my all-time faves. I remember it very well when it was a hit (I was about seven at the time) and played my copy of the 45 to death, much to the consternation of my mother and brothers, who no doubt wondered what the hell was going on with me. Ah well…….

    Y’know what surprises me is, that for a record that was as big a hit as this was (It was #6 in October of 1971, according to Billboard), you never hear it at all on oldies radio, at least not in these parts (to say nothing of “oldies radio’s disappearance here in Indianapolis, thanks to the uwelcome presence of Jack). Guess that’s one more reason I don’t listen to the radio anymore.

    Anyway, thanks for one of the greatest tracks of all….at least to me.

  2. djmp45 Says:

    classic stuff!do you like the “el tigre” (b side to honky tonk ) by dennis coffey?i think it has a really nice break that hasnt been sampled by anybody….strange…i play it quite a lot…

  3. Jon Says:

    Woo! I never heard that track before, which indicates the depth of my ignorance and tells you why I love the internet sooooo much! As a bass player as well I have even more reason to dig it. It’s gone straight in to my all time faves virtual crate. The bass player plays his bass guitar like a string bass, on the break at least, which is interesting, and I love the way it flaps and breaks up on the lower notes. James Jamerson had a similar sound. The hollering in the background and the ‘ woo ‘ sound of the Guica ( makes a noise like someone tickling an owl 😉 . . ) is lovely.
    Extremely cool, thanks! I even forgive Mr Coffey his horrible comb over. . .

  4. fleamarketfunk Says:

    dennis coffey continues to rip it today! great one larry. i recently saw a video of him performing scorpio in new orleans this past year…i believe with the same guitar. one of my all time favs, and don’t sleep on “son of scorpio” either.

  5. funky16corners Says:

    I always thought of the Guica as sounding like someone pulling a straw back and forth through the lid of a fast food soda cup, but henceforth I shall defer to your description. Pure poetry!

  6. Allen Says:

    great track, but for the record the instrument is called a “cuica” not a “guica.” funny how much it appeared in american soul and funk beginning in the late 1960s. I wonder who takes credit for that. I’m guessing Airto, the brazilian precussionist . . .

  7. JJ Money Says:

    Nice track.

  8. JJ Money Says:

    Hey that break *is* sweet. Kind of a Cold Sweat multi-bar pattern. Cool.

  9. JJ Money Says:

    Last Comment: Love the bass action over the break. Sounds a bit like Drumology by the Nite-Liters. Damn, this is funky. Thanks Larry.

  10. JJ Money Says:

    Last Comment: Love the bass action over the break. Damn, this is funky. Thanks Larry.

  11. jb Says:

    You are telling my story, Larry–you heard it the way I heard it, at approximately the same age, and I rushed out and got the 45 ASAP. (I may never be able to hear it again without visualizing Coffey doing the robot dance, though.) Bought the followup single, too, “Taurus.” It was not quite as awesome, but still brought much rockin’ funkiness to the Top 40 in the spring of ’72, much needed given that it was the season of “First Time Every I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack.

    Great stuff, and great writing. Thanks a lot.

  12. cg Says:

    Great break. Probably my all time favourite. Would like to hear a mix of similar stuff in a mix. Maybe even include scorpio and son of scorpio

  13. Pete Gloria Says:

    I suspect this track is the JFK moment uber-break equivalent to the hip funk/soul hop crowd, everybody’s got a memory of where they were when they first heard it…
    I don’t, I just looked at my flatmate’s copy’s cover about fifteen years ago and laughed. Fool. Now I know better (and my ears aren’t just there for cosmetic purposes), that louche polyester threadery just adds to my enjoyment of his trademark lemon-flavoured tripped-out music. Pickled funk!

    Actually I had a (really tiny) Pause for a Coffey Break moment recently. I’d noticed a D.Coffey on the credits to one of my fave bonkers tracks ‘Mind Intruder’ by Lonette, and had always thought it must be him but not bothered to check it out. So I went on the GoogleNet and it was. But what made it a ‘moment’ was I ended up on some message board/forum thing which he frequents. I didn’t get to exchange words or anything but it was just great to read some of the exchanges between the man and acquaintances where one guy says to him words to the effect of ‘Good to see you’re still alive’ and he says ‘Hey, any day I wake up on the right side of the grass is a good day!’.
    Nothing to it – and that’s what was great. From wax divinity to common humanity in 0.2 seconds flat.
    Bit like the Chris Clarke moment here not long ago…

  14. Mmm, Smells Like Vinyl « The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ Says:

    […] he put up one of the mightiest music blog posts I’ve read anywhere in a long time, featuring Dennis Coffey’s 1971 hit “Scorpio.” Larry’s enthusiasm for his music is always right up front, but it’s pretty clear that […]

  15. Jimi Hazel Says:

    Killer! Killer! Killer! FYI, the bassist on the track is Bob Babbit!

  16. Jimi Hazel Says:

    Oops! Correction! It’s Bob Babbitt!

  17. The Owl Says:

    Good Gawd Y’all!!

    “Scorpio” was a guitarist delight for me, and of course the coolest drum/percussion breakdown in history! I heard this wonderful song at age 12 when it was on AM radio and man did it set me to groovin’! And that rippin’ bass solo by Bob Babbit was one for the ages, soulful,. grooving and ferocious at the same time. They just don’t make music like that anymore. I’m still struck by the fact that at one time, instrumentals could become radio hits, and this one sure deserved every ounce of radio-play it got!

    Dennis today still plays a lot around his native Detroit, if you ever swing through there, he can be seen at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge among other venues.

    I just hope one day the actuial “Evolution” and the other albums will be reissued on CD.

  18. Crimson Ghost Says:

    Coffey’s “Theme from Black Belt Jones” is beyond words, as amazing as “Scorpio.” Watching the opening sequence of “Black Belt Jones”, the unbelivable visuals combined with the music, makes you feel happy to be alive.

  19. JP Says:

    I don’t remember where I was when this first became a hit…all I know is that this song was big around the same time SOUL TRAIN premiered nationally, and they played this tune to death. (Did you know that Coffey was SOUL TRAIN’s first white guest? Not Elton John, not David Bowie, sure as hell not the Beastie Boys, but Coffey?)

    Another good thing: just about every other uptempo soul/funk record during this era had a bass/drums breakdown…I always loved the ones where you could hear the musicians shouting amongst themselves…they’re talking up a storm on “Scorpio,” but evidently the cat who said “well, well, well” was the one standing closest to the mike, ’cause that remark comes in the clearest of all.

  20. Jay Says:

    Can you believe I just now have heard this song?? Well I have heard it when Public Enemy, Young MC, LL COOL J and others sampled it but I love hearing the original song’s. I have this one on my computer…now I am trying to find Herman Kelly & Life’s “Dance to the Drummers Beat”. Perhaps you could put that one up? Love the song though…bass line is nice…drumming great…just an all around good song…why don’t they make em like this anymore?

  21. Chuck Says:

    Great posting about a tune that almost caused me to crash my car when I first heard it on my car radio. Scorpio is available as a bonus track on the 2-CD deluxe edition of Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

    Glad to see posters mention Bob Babbitt as the bassist. In the “SITSOM” documentary that tells the story of the Funk Brothers, there is a scene where other bass players say they couldn’t get a recording session if they couldn’t play that solo.

    It was ahead of its time.

  22. My Guitar site Says:

    My Guitar site…

    Riff interactive just posted an entire months worth of Lick Of The Day videos to their YouTube channel. These videos are from the‘ Golden Age of Guitar Instrumentals’ series, which includes licks from segments called Blues/ Rock Guitar , Rock and Roll …

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: