Famous fathers often try to steer their children away from following in their footsteps. They know that attaining success is even tougher when a young musician’s achievements are constantly compared with those of a legendary parent. But that wasn’t the case with 19-year-old blues sensation Shemekia Copeland: Her father, legendary guitarist Johnny Copeland, helped her find the will and desire to become a professional singer.
“For a long time, I wasn’t really sure that [singing the blues] was what I wanted to do,” Copeland said recently by phone from New Jersey. “My father knew from the time he first got me up onstage at the Cotton Club that singing was what I ultimately would do. I was busy just being a kid, but he knew all along.”
Now Copeland, who’ll be making her Nashville debut Thursday at the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, is the hottest young female blues singer on the scene. Her debut album Turn the Heat Up (Alligator) has fans excited about its jubilant combination of earnestly sung blues, roaring soul, and contemporary yet timeless lyrics. In addition to an outstanding cover of Don Covay’s “Have Mercy,” the album features compositions by Copeland herself. The wit and wisdom of these tunes belie her youth, while also showing that she has taken her father’s advice about how to write a song and how to sing it.
“From the first time I ever got onstage, my father told me to be myself,” Copeland says. “He said if you’re going to do a cover, make it something special. He felt it didn’t make sense to do what everyone else was doing, that if that’s what you wanted to do, why bother getting onstage. He encouraged me to find my voice, to write my own songs.”
Johnny Copeland was not only a masterful guitarist and vocalist, he was also among the most adventurous and versatile blues musicians of his time. He started in the late ’50s making soulful if derivative singles, but he gained a reputation in the ’80s for his stylistic boldness. (He cut the first blues LP ever recorded in West Africa, the 1985 classic Bringin’ It All Back Home.) Though born in Louisiana, Copeland relocated to New York City in the late ’70s, and he was based there throughout the ’80s and ’90s, cutting a string of acclaimed LPs for Rounder and Verve from 1981 until his death last year of a heart attack at age 60.
Shemekia Copeland grew up in Harlem, and she began making regular appearances with her father in 1994, when he was diagnosed with a degenerative heart condition. She opened shows for him, then sang backup vocals during his sets. Copeland discovered that she not only enjoyed singing blues songs, she preferred them to other styleseven though her father always encouraged her to check out a variety of music.
“My father was interested in all kinds of music and enjoyed everything. We’d listen to everything: Stax and Atlantic singles, people like O.V. Wright and Sam Moore. The only thing my father ever said about music was that he didn’t want to hear any b.s.; it had to be great.”
Besides singing with and opening for her father, Copeland’s initiation into the blues included working with Gatemouth Brown, James Cotton, Johnnie Johnson, and Bobby Rush. She cites as further inspirations and favorites Koko Taylor, Etta James, and Katie Webster; she also mentions Trudy Lynn, a favorite of Southern audiences who has yet to enjoy national success.
Copeland has strong opinions about the current state of the blues, though she’s careful to say her views are not about personalities but about cultural politics. “I don’t have anything against the people who’ve become stars doing what they call ‘blues-rock.’ I think Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd are very talented. What bothers me is that there are people who’ve been out here singing the blues for years, and they can’t get any attention, they can’t get a contract.
“My father worked a long time before he signed with Rounder. At the same time, he’d always say that he didn’t want to waste time attacking anyone. He was just interested in trying to do what he did to the best of his ability, and that’s how I feel about things.”
It’s been a busy year thus far for the singer: She was a huge hit at the Chicago Blues Festival, and she has also appeared at Buddy Guy’s Legends club, at the North Atlantic and New York State blues festivals, and on the cover of Blues Revue magazine. Additionally, she has become an advocate for exposing young people, especially young African Americans, to the blues.
“I’ve always been told that young black people don’t like the blues, don’t want to hear the blues and have no interest. I feel it’s more a case of exposure; they haven’t heard any blues and don’t know any blues. Young people walk up to me at concerts all the time and say, ‘If that’s what the blues are about, then I like the blues.’ I don’t think the blues are going to replace hip-hop, but I think more young people would enjoy them if they heard them.”
For now, though, Copeland is concentrating mostly on her burgeoning career. Judging from the quality of Turn the Heat Up, she’s only going to get better and better with more seasoning and experience. Already, she’s an exciting performer. The Nashville blues community has a treat in store: the chance to see the next major star in the idiom come of age.
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