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Dennis Coffey - Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars

Fred Wesley - Hit Me, Fred

The life a sideman may not be the most glamourous, but it can be among the more revealing or interesting positions to be in for the music industry.  Fame will probably elude you, yet the knowledge and insight gained into the process of recording, star-making and the machinations of how the industry really works can be invaluable. In any instance, you are sure to gain plenty of memorable stories.  Such is the case of two session musicians who also gained success under their own name.  

Coffey, perhaps the most recorded guitarist of Detroit soul, played on such hits as the Temptations' "Cloud Nine," "In the Rain" by the Dramatics and Marvin Gaye's "I Want You." He also had success as a solo artist with "Scorpio" and "Theme From Black Belt Jones." Guitars, Bars, and Motown Superstars tells Coffey's story from a youth who played his first session at the age of fifteen to becoming the featured guitarist on million-selling records.

Wesley, of course, is the trombonist who played with the two most influential artists in funk: James Brown and P-Funk.  Hit Me, Fred, recounts his journey from playing in the Army in Alabama to the highlights of becoming the musical director for James Brown and primary horn arranger for P-Funk. With Brown particularly, his presence was indispensible, as he essentially wrote and produced projects for which he did not receive full credit. 

Of the two books, Wesley's offers the more entertaining stories, primarily because of the personalities of the people he worked for. Wesley offers up plenty of stories about JB's legendary toughness on his band, including one tale where the Godfather pulled a gun on a musician, as well as the often-chaotic atmosphere surrounding P-Funk.  

Coffey's remembrances are rather pedestrian in comparison (outside of his story about the Detroit riots), but his experiences as executive of his production company provide a more involved insight into the challenges of being an executive than Wesley, who always seemed to be tied into situations that didn't allow him the freedom of pursing outside interests. 

When the hits run out, the star can usually retreat to the oldies circuit or perform overseas to maintain their career.  Sidemen do not have this luxury, and the experiences of Coffey and Wesley bear this out; Coffey eventually left the music business entirely while Wesley fell into a drug addiction that necessitated a relocation to Denver to break his habit. However, there are happy endings in both cases, as Coffey is currently preparing a new album while Wesley also records on a regular basis and receives royalties for the compositions he recorded with Brown. 

As cautionary tales for star-struck fans and as chronicles of an era that produced some of the world's most enduring music, both books are recommended reading.  

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