A FEW MINUTES WITH… Shemekia Copeland

By Don Wilcock

On Saturday afternoon the Queen of the Blues plays the king of the Greater Nippertown jazz festivals, the 39th annual Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

In 2012 Cookie Taylor – daughter of the original Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor – presented Shemekia Copeland with her late mom’s title. Two weeks ago Shemekia was the Friday night headliner at the Chicago Blues Festival during the Alligator Records 45th Anniversary celebration. Last week, her latest album, Outskirts of Love, was nominated for Best Blues Album of 2015 by the readers of Living Blues Magazine.

At 37 years old, this firecracker of a blues shouter is steeped in a tradition that has dominated her life since the day she was born in Harlem, April 10, 1979.

She’s the daughter of Grammy Award-winning Johnny Clyde Copeland, a Texas triangle blues singer and guitarist who was in the audience in 1954, the night Johnny Ace killed himself backstage playing Russian roulette. Copeland would go on to tour with Albert Collins, Big Mama Thornton and Freddie King. He was one of the first artists to cover Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1965, and in 1984 he did a 10-country tour of West Africa where he encountered people dancing in the trees. “It looked like the whole world was shaking and all you could hear was music,” he recalled. “It was the closest thing I saw to the blues because it was coming from the soul.” In the early ’80s he played many gigs in and around Greater Nippertown, telling me at the time, “I try to put 100% of me into everything I do. Not 99, 100! Whether it’s 20 people, 100 people, 1,000 people or just one.”

Shemekia has Johnny’s genes. She first joined her dad on stage at age six. “I was nervous all along,” she admits today. “I didn’t even want to sing in front of my family. It was like, oh, my God, you know? And that’s just insecurity. God, I love being an adult. I say it all the time. I’m so grateful for growing up because when you are comfortable with who you are, and you are comfortable with yourself and you are comfortable with what you are saying and what you are putting out in the universe, it just makes getting up on the stage that much more easy. You get to a certain age where you just – know what? I’m gonna say this anyhow, (laughs) and then you decide how you feel about it, but I’m gonna tell you how I feel. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

The late Ruth Brown was among Shemekia’s best friends. The rhythm ’n’ blues queen was Atlantic Records’ first hitmaker with “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” “I had nothing. I always say that woman literally gave me the clothes off her back, and she did. At my first Blues Music Awards, I wore one of Ruth Brown’s outfits.”

Koko Taylor taught Shemekia how to wear her blues crown. “She was such a great friend of mine, and I love her so much, not just because she was such an amazing artist, but because she had just a fantastic heart. She was just a wonderful, amazing person, and to me she will always be just the Queen of the Blues.”

But it was Daddy who gave Shemekia her voice. “He always wanted to be original. I can’t tell you how much he stressed that for me. I wake up sometimes, and the last thing I want is to be like anybody else.

“I don’t want to be like the ones that wear the tight dresses and flash their ass. I don’t want to do that.

“I don’t want to sing just love songs or just blues songs.

“I wanna do my own thing. I wanna take the music to the next level. I wanna make it. I love this music so much. I know the potential of it, and I want blues to be something mainstream. People always say, ‘Have you ever thought of crossing over?’ Hell, no. I want them to cross over to me.”

With seven albums produced by such music icons as Dr. John, Steve Cropper and Oliver Wood, Shemekia has earned eight Blues Music Awards and two Grammy nominations. Her music reflects the hard scrabble grit of growing up in Harlem with a father whose every gig was hard won.

Her manager John Hahn writes most of her originals. He channels her soul the way Tom Hambridge does writing for Buddy Guy. “John may look white, but in his chest beats the heart of a very angry black woman. He’s known me since I was eight years old. We talk every day on the phone, probably a few times a day. He knows what’s going on in my mind, and he knows what’s going on in my head because we have all these conversations, and we talk about everything. We don’t just talk about manager stuff. We talk about everything. All the things a woman has to deal with and go through, he’s right there with me on all of this stuff.”

Hahn, a former advertising executive and one of my dear friends, co-wrote five of the songs on Shemekia’s current CD. On the title cut of Outskirts of Love, a woman gets on a bus with a suitcase bound in string. She’s pawned her wedding ring and leaves a homeless man holding her wedding bouquet. In another song Shemekia sings about living in a “Cardboard Box:” “We all end up in a box. I just got mine first.” And on “Drivin’ Out of Nashville” she has a body in her trunk. “These abusive men got one thing on their mind/They claim your big chance is somewhere in their pants/but disappointment is all you’re gonna find.”

It’s songs like these that bring blues into the 21st century with the kind of punch that made Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” so powerful for Koko Taylor. “I just have an urban attitude toward the music,” explains Shemekia. “The ladies that came before me, they were a little bit different, and one of the famous songs that women love to sing is (Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”), ‘I’d rather go blind than to see you walk away from me.’ I would never sing that song ’cause there’s no way in hell I’d rather go blind than to see you walk away. I want my sight so I can use my foot to kick your ass out the door.”

She takes her time, living with a song, too. “There’s a lot of songs, like… well, Tina Turner didn’t like ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It.’ Sometimes when you first hear something, it takes a minute to grow on you. That’s why I take so long to make records because I don’t just want to do something that I just heard or – I have to live with it for a little while. That way you can know that you can live this song. You can breathe this song. You can perform this song, and then people will take it seriously. Some of the songs that I do people have to believe it from you.”

Shemekia always does just one of her daddy’s songs on each album. On Outskirts of Town it’s “Devil’s Hand.” “I don’t wanna do a whole record of Johnny Copeland songs. Later on in my career, maybe, but right now I’m still trying to figure out who Shemekia Copeland is, so I don’t want to do that just yet. Once I establish my own identity, which with the last three records I feel I’m doing more so than ever, then maybe I’ll do other things ’cause people always say, ‘Well, why don’t you do a tribute record to Koko Taylor?’ In my mind I’m thinking I knew Koko Taylor very well, and that would piss her off. If she was alive she would be gracious that I did it, but she would also be pissed off because the reason she loved me so much was because I was doing my own thing.”

As part of Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, Shemekia Copeland is slated to hit SPAC’s Amphitheater Main Stage at 5:40pm on Saturday (June 25). GO HERE for a complete schedule of who’s playing when to help you plan your fest…

  1. steve nover says

    Nippertown keyboardist Jason Ladanye has toured in her band……..the interview makes me look even more forward to seeing her …….for the first time in years

  2. Rudy says

    She is such a talent. She has certainly been on the scene a long time. I remember first seeing her at Music Haven in 1998. Jimmy Vivino was in her band playing guitar.

  3. Fred says

    Shemekia is a gem. I still remember her father telling me at Colgate back in 1988 about his little girl, who was going to be a big-time singer someday.

  4. Peter Lesser says

    Another chance to see Shemekia Copeland – just announced that she will open the concert by The Robert Cray Band at The Egg on September 2

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