Johnny Clyde Copeland soaked his daughter’s life with the blues.
Since birth, Shemekia Copeland has been drenched in it, its mythology, its visceral yearning, its indelible influences, and the sweeping catalogue of its tunes about hell hounds, highways and complicated love.
Yet today, Shemekia never questions her course, or her being as a second-generation blues artist.
“Since I was a little girl I was singing the blues around the house at age 3,” said Shemekia Copeland, 40. “As a musician you never stop paying your dues, and it took so long for me to feel good about who I am. I feel good now. I started as a kid and now I am performing as a grownup who has lived and has found the opening. I’m using my voice to put good things out there in the world — and I feel good about that.”
Copeland was born in the artistic hub of Harlem, in New York City, the daughter of a Louisiana-born bluesman whose own melodies and exuberance made him a star in Texas honky-tonks. She has been singing since she pronounced her first sounds, and entered her initial public performance on a Harlem stage at around age 10.
“My dad was a proud Texan. But there was nothing happening in the Houston area as far as music in the '70s. Disco came into play and live music wasn’t happening. Harlem is where he landed and he played local clubs. He met my mom at a club there.”
She began to pursue her own singing career at age 16. As her father's health deteriorated (he died in 1997, of a congenital heart defect, at age 60), he took his daughter on tour as his opening act. After Shemekia Copeland graduated in 1997 from high school in Teaneck, New Jersey, she dedicated herself to the blues circuit.
A beautiful aspect of her father’s legacy is the longstanding relationship Copeland maintains with one of her dad’s best friends, John Hahn. Hahn, who has guided her career from its inception, served as the producer of Johnny Clyde Copeland’s “Flyin’ High,” released in 1992. Hahn co-produced Shemekia Copeland’s first two CD’s, including her Grammy-nominated “Wicked” in 2000.
“I’ve known John since I was 8-years-old and he has always felt a strong responsibility to take care of me, and that’s what he has done. Professionally, John writes so well and he writes in a style that’s tailor-made to me. My father died and he stepped in and I have talked to him on the phone just about every day since. As far as the music, it’s great to be able to bounce things off of such a talented person.”
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For a number of years, Copeland has captivated listeners with her melodies, which are so richly crafted that their catchiness is seductive. To say that her voice holds your attention is an oversimplification. Copeland’s voice is razor-sharp and rhythmically effervescent, and it’s as smooth as marble, courageous and ingenious. In sum, her singing is so refined and so reliable that it seems destined to become a key part of all future blues living. She said that she enjoys singing and interpreting songs that represent the wide vocal range of the artists she heard in her home as a young girl, from Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, to Charley Pride and Solomon Burke.
“People like Ruth Brown, there are so many cool voices,” said Copeland, who has called Chicago home for the last 17 years. “My Top 10 list (of favorite vocalists) would be so eclectic, Howlin’ Wolf to Ella Fitzgerald, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. I’m still trying to learn how to sing and I still go in for voice lessons. If I have learned anything as a vocalist, it is that you can never stop learning. Awhile ago I was more of a blues shouter and I used power in the beginning. Then with (producer) Oliver Wood, he told me I could move people without all the power, and that changed my singing. I’m all about substance.”
Indeed, she is still riding out the wave of accolades she’s received from the release of “America’s Child” in August 2018. One of its high marks is the work of noted guitarist Steve Cropper, who adds his playing to the ballad “Promised Myself,” written by Johnny Copeland.
“I try to record at least one of my dad’s songs on every record as my way of connecting to him and also connecting him and his music to new audiences. He wrote a song, “Ghetto Child,” in the 1950s about poor children in a poor Texas neighborhood. It’s a crowd favorite. It is a sad song to sing.”
The birth of her son, Johnny Lee Copeland-Schultz, in 2016, forced her to re-examine the world — as well as her music — with a more discerning eye.
“With my son, I started to think more about the future of the world and what kind of a world my little guy would grow up in. I want to heal it in some sort of way and help bring people together. Music can change things and “Ain’t Got Time For Hate,” that’s all about him. There is a lot of hate being thrown around and that bothers me so much. I was raised to love all people — and I do. Unconditionally. Even if they hate me. You’re scared as a parent, but you’re hopeful that things will be better for them than they were for you. I want him to grow up in a world of acceptance and where there is acceptance of each other for their differences. This is a great country. I hope we can all accept and love each other for what we are.”
With the power of a hurricane and spirit of a saint, Copeland’s singing has galvanized change. Her most powerful moments not only underscore the indelible trace of her heritage on her life and her work, but sideline and shelve such differences, too. Indeed, her continuing desire is to explore that very sense of unity.
“I was happy that 'Outskirts of Love' became the title track (of the eponymous 2015 album), because we all live on the outskirts of something,” said Copeland. “It could be the outskirts of love, or justice, or battling homelessness, or if you are about to do something that you know is wrong and can’t stop it. We are all going through things, and we all need a little bit of help.”