Hail to the Queen: "Queen of the Blues" Shemekia Copeland, March 28 at St. Ambrose University Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 06:00

Shemekia CopelandAs the daughter of the late, Grammy Award-winning blues guitarist Johnny Copeland, and herself the winner of six Blues Music Awards, it would be safe to describe 34-year-old vocalist Shemekia Copeland as blues-music royalty. In 2012, during a performance at the Chicago Blues Festival, she even became royalty (of a sort), when Copeland was presented with Koko Taylor’s tiara and officially proclaimed “Queen of the Blues” by the City of Chicago.

So when you see the track listings for Copeland’s most recent CD – 2012’s 33 1/3 – and notice that they include covers of Randy Weeks’ country hit “Can’t Let Go,” Bob Dylan’s folk hit “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” and Sam Cooke’s R&B hit “Ain’t That Good News,” you might think the album was designed as the singer’s chance to, at least momentarily, escape the blues. Copeland, however, would respectfully disagree.

“I never want to get away from the blues,” she says during our recent phone interview promoting her March 28 performance at St. Ambrose University’s Galvin Fine Arts Center. “That’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m a blues singer and proud. Extremely proud. But I just feel that blues is ... . Blues is the root of everything. I mean, what is country but blues with a twang? What is rock ’n’ roll but blues with loud guitars?

“So I don’t feel like I’m limited as a blues singer,” Copeland continues. “I don’t feel like I can’t sing other things. Because there are elements of the music I love in all of it. I mean, it’s always blues, the second I open my mouth. That’s what it is, and I can’t change that, you know? And I don’t want to.”

No one who has heard Copeland’s glorious blues wailing could conceivably want her to, either. Whether delivering a rendition of her father’s soulful “One More Time” or attacking the genre smash “Beat Up Old Guitar” – which she famously sang, with President Obama in attendance, in PBS’s In Performance at the White House: Red, White, & Blues – Copeland brings both technical mastery and fierce emotionalism to every number she performs. And with the Boston Globe raving about her “sizzling hot intensity” and the Village Voice describing the artist’s prowess as “nothing short of uncanny,” the passion that Copeland feels for the blues is as crystal-clear as her vocals.

“I just love what I do,” she says simply. “And I love doing what I do.”

As a youth in Harlem, says Copeland, “We grew up with music all the time. Dad used to sit around with the guitar and play, and he would have friends come over and they would all play together ... . Oh yeah, everybody loved music in my house.”

Shemekia CopelandIt wasn’t, however, strictly blues music that was listened to. “My father was actually a huge country-and-Western fan,” she says. “So we listened to a lot of country-and-Western, but also soul, and R&B, and gospel, of course ... . And my father was also into world music, so we listened to music from West Africa and South Africa ... . He just loved music in general.”

But although she displayed an early talent for singing – at age eight, her father even brought her on-stage to perform with him at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club – Copeland says she had no inclination to become a performer herself.

“I was terrified of singing,” she says with a laugh. “And the thought of singing in front of people? No. As a kid, I definitely didn’t think that this would be what I’d be doing for my life.” (Copeland adds that she did give some thought to following her mother’s career path of psychology, and says that now, “I kind of feel like I’m in both my parents’ fields, because I think as a musician, you have a great responsibility to uplift people, and I get to do that.”)

But Copeland had a change of heart about professional singing at age 16, when she agreed to join her dad on tour and serve as his opening act. “All of a sudden,” she says, “I was like, ‘Wow, this is my calling.’

“I mean, I didn’t love the road life,” she adds. “There’s nothing really super-cool about traveling around in a van with a bunch of guys. But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I mean, you hear so many great stories, and you get to see this wonderful country that we’re in, plus other ones ... .

“So yeah, touring has its ups and downs,” Copeland says with a laugh. “But it quickly became, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m gonna be doing with the rest of my life.’”

After her father’s passing in 1997, Copeland was given the opportunity – at the age of 18 – to record her first album, Turn the Heat Up! “I had been doing gigs around New York,” she says of its inception, “and doing some festivals, and Bruce Iglauer from Alligator Records heard about me and came to see me. And he wanted me to record.

“I was pretty blessed to have that happen,” she continues. “My manager John Hahn – who’s still my manager to this day – had some songs he’d written, and between those songs and some of my dad’s songs, and songs that were submitted to me to listen to, we had enough for a record.” And, it should be added, a terrifically successful record. Turn the Heat Up! received Blues Music Award nominations for Contemporary Blues Album and Blues Song of the Year, and Copeland herself was nominated for Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year – an award she would win two years later, along with two others, for her follow-up album Wicked.

Yet Copeland admits that, then as now, critical raves and awards don’t necessarily guarantee career longevity. “In music, you never feel totally secure,” she says. “Which is good, because it helps you stay motivated and continue to try to create new work. I mean, I’ve always been pretty blessed and lucky to have work. But I don’t want to feel any false sense of security, because I’ve seen this business change so much over the past 15 years that it’s just shocking to me. I never thought I’d see the day where there were no CD stores, you know what I mean? It still makes my heart drop.”

Shemekia CopelandConsequently, as the blues musician says, “unless you’re a big big star, artists like myself make our living from touring.” And in addition to recording additionally lauded albums such as 2002’s Talking to Strangers, 2009’s Never Going Back, and 2012’s 33 1/3 – a Grammy nominee for Best Blues Album – that’s exactly what Copeland has done.

“I’ve traveled in India, Australia, Europe,” she lists. “France is an amazing place to perform the blues. Norway is one of my favorites. And Switzerland. Blues is very well-received over there, because they really embrace culture and history. That’s why they love this music so much.

“And we toured Iraq and Kuwait,” adds Copeland. “It was ’08 or ’09, and God, that was a wonderful experience – an amazing, life-changing experience. We were a small group there for two weeks, and we were able to go to small bases that nobody goes to, and I can’t tell you how happy they were to see us, you know? I felt very proud to be doing something for my country and those kids over there.”

Another source of pride for Copeland comes from her 2012 “Queen of the Blues” citation. “That was such a big surprise,” she says of the event that found Koko Taylor’s daughter – Joyce “Cookie” Taylor – presenting Koko’s famed tiara to Copeland in the midst of her Chicago Blues Festival set.

“I had absolutely no idea it was coming, and I was just in shock. And so, so grateful, because as far as I’m concerned, Koko Taylor will always be the queen of the blues. She was my queen, and always incredibly kind to me. And to have both her and the City of Chicago say that I’m doing a good job filling her shoes by being my own person, and being my own artist, and not trying to do exactly what she did ... . It just made me feel really proud.

“You know, for me, the older I get, the more fun music gets,” says our reigning Queen of the Blues. “Because you’re more comfortable in your skin. I mean, I’m gonna be 35 next month, and it’s just wonderful. When you’re younger, you have those insecurities, but I feel comfortable now with who I am and what I’m doing.”

She laughs. “I guess insecurities slightly go away as you age.”

 

Shemekia Copeland performs at St. Ambrose University’s Galvin Fine Arts Center (2101 Gaines Street, Davenport) on Friday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m. For more information and tickets, call (563)333-6251 or visit SAU.edu/galvin.

For more information on the artist, visit ShemekiaCopeland.com.