Soul Train History Book: Dennis Coffey

Dennis Coffey photoIt had been documented that the first white artist to appear on Soul Train was Gino Vanelli, but that’s not accurate. The first white artist to actually appear on the program was Dennis Coffey.

In December 1971, Coffey and his Detroit Guitar Band brought their brand of funk aboard the hippest trip in America. The group’s members consisted of James Barnes on congas, Andrew Smith on drums, Bob Babbitt on bass and Eric Morgan on organ. As host Don Cornelius mentioned in his introduction of the group, “they play their instruments with conviction.”

Coffey had been a session musician for various Motown artists including the Temptations, The Jackson 5 and Edwin Starr. He eventually put his own band together to show what he could do in front of as well as behind the scenes.

The album the band had out at the time, Evolution, was a huge hit among record buyers and it was played at many clubs and parties.

Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band opened with a live version of their million-selling smash single “Scorpio,” which was just as funky as the studio version. This instrumental jam had been playing regularly on Soul Train and was always a favorite with the Soul Train Gang.

Some of the dancers who were present for this performance recalled that the energy was very high in the studio as a result of Coffey and his band’s jamming live grooves. Indeed, the Soul Train Gang danced with great excitement around the band with their locking, splitting and free style movements.

Watching Coffey and the group play their instruments was equally intriguing. Each band member played his instrument with the utmost concentration and dedication. As the frontman, Coffey played his guitar as if his very life depended upon it.

“Scorpio” climbed to #9 on the soul singles chart and #6 on the pop singles chart and was a popular track in dance clubs and was utilized heavily several years later when the breakdance movement began in the South Bronx.

The Soul Train Gang asked Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band several questions during the show’s Q&A session. Dancer Meta King asked if anyone in the group was a Scorpio, to which he replied, “I’m the only one!” Another dancer asked how the group got started. “Most of us did a lot of studio work in Detroit, so that’s how it all started.”

When asked how he came to play background with Wilson Pickett, Coffey replied, “I was playing on records by the Motown groups and one day people from Atlantic Records asked if I would like to come down to Muscle Shoals studio, and that’s how it came about.”

Dennis Coffey Evolution albumCornelius then requested that Coffey and his band do a track from the Evolution album titled “A Whole Lot of Love,” which Cornelius stated “struck his fancy.” Once again, Coffey and his bandmates laid some more of their live Detroit funk on the enthusiastic Soul Train Gang.

Coffey’s appearance on Soul Train was a big breakthrough for Soul Train, as it signified it was capable of attracting acts that were non-African American. Some years later, other white acts began appearing on the show such as Gino Vanelli, Elton John, Average White Band, Hall & Oates, Duran Duran and others. Of interesting note is that although Gino Vanelli, Elton John and Average White Band were all popular in the mainstream market, they never appeared on American Bandstand (Coffey had appeared on that program in April 1972), which was a testament to Soul Train’s massive popularity at the time and the steady, slow decline of American Bandstand’s widespread appeal. (Strangely enough, Elvis Presley, the Beatles or Rolling Stones, three of the most legendary acts in pop music, never performed on American Bandstand)

Indeed, Soul Train began making waves and floods of soul continued to burst forth.

-Stephen McMillian

Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer/performer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian. He is also a former Soul Train dancer. He is featured in the Soul Train documentary Show Me Your Soul and is also featured in the book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train which is available on Amazon and in bookstores.

3 Comments

  1. GuitarJam says:

    Scorpio is still my shit! :D RIP Bob Babbit

  2. chitown_d says:

    I remember Dennis appearance on Soul Train. My question is what happened to the footage ?

  3. Stephanie Campbell says:

    I went to IHOP yesterday and heard Scorpio and thought about this article.

Leave a Comment



Powered by WordPress | Site by Fishbucket