You might think that the last thing you need to hear is another version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. After all, the Liverpool lads did a wonderful chamber pop version back in 1966, and there have been notable covers by such luminaries as Johnny Mathis, Joan Baez, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, as well as many other renditions by a host of other artists. It’s a classic so entombed in the popular culture pantheon that it’s hard to hear fresh this days. But you haven’t heard this version by guitarist Dennis Coffey before, originally recorded live back in 1968 but unreleased and kept in the vaults until now, and it’s well worth seeking out. It takes the song places it never went before, nor has it gone since.
Coffey along with organist Lyman Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis had a weekly gig at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge in Detroit. They would perform original material and covers of popular music for the hip live crowd. On this night they turned Lennon/McCartney’s gentle two minute ode about loneliness into 13 plus minute funky workout that suggests what would have happened if Eleanor and Father McKenzie got together and ignited their hidden passions into a blazing love tryst! Ah the lonely people, indeed.
The sound of Coffey’s wah wah guitar licks on Rigby and the other material inspires one to move one’s hips, preferably against the moving hips of another person. The music doesn’t build to a climax as much as continually peak. Woodward’s organ playing creates a vibrant background for Rigby to play against and Davis keeps the beat moving fast and forward. At times this is more of a jazz record than a rock record, such as on their cover of Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce”, but the tracks offer a fusion of the two styles—and have solid funk credentials.
The music stays lively. They play a varied selection of popular songs by a range of artists including the Meters, the Young Rascals, and the Isley Brothers and transform their simple melodies into a launching pad. The band sets the melody, plays the songs faster than the originals. They don’t need to increase the volume or add dramatic effects to create the mood. They just let loose. This is the same formula used on “Eleanor Rigby”. The band members improvise freely as this is a live set. And when they perform their self-penned material, such as on “Mindbender” and “Big City Lights” it sounds as if they are making up the music on the spot.
Coffey is best known for his 1971 hit “Scorpio” and his role on such Motown classics as The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, Edwin Starr’s “War”, and Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”. His production and guitar playing on (Sixto) Rodriguez’s Cold Fact also helped put him in the limelight during this decade. But one night 50 years ago Coffey was jamming at a nightclub in the Motor City and laid down some damn good music. It’s about time the rest of us got to hear it.