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This article by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
July 22, 1998. All rights reserved.
The Next Etta James?
Offstage she’s a polite, quiet, very bright but
19-year-old girl. Onstage she’s a ball of fire, perhaps the most
powerful and exciting new blues vocalist to come along since Etta
James or Bonnie Raitt.
Who is she? She’s Shemekia (the I is silent) Copeland, daughter of
the late blues guitarist, songwriter, and singer Johnny
Copeland. Her father, no stranger to the New Jersey-New York blues
club circuit, died July 3, 1997, half a year after a heart
While 60 years was far too young for a man of Copeland’s energy and
international renown, he died with the knowledge his daughter
had been signed to record for Chicago’s Alligator Records, certainly
one of the better labels for any blues artist.
Shemekia’s debut album for Alligator, "Turn The Heat Up,"
released in May, is climbing up the Billboard magazine Blues chart,
is No. 1 on the Living Blues magazine radio chart, and critics around
the blues community have been giving it raves.
Shemekia says she had a revelation when her dad was
first slowed down by heart troubles in the spring of 1995. She had
been singing in church and at school since she was three. She attended
Harlem’s Harbor Performing Arts School in junior high. In 1994, after
many years on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem, the Copelands bought
a house in Teaneck, and Shemekia attended Teaneck High School.
"I always say, when dad got sick, I got the calling," says
"Something came over me. I said, This is what I really
want to do, and I poured everything I had into it," she recalls.
At that point, Shemekia was just 16. Since her father was restricted
in the performances he could play because of the L-VAD (left
assist device) in his heart, Shemekia would open shows for her father
at area clubs like New York’s Manny’s Car Wash and at the Old Bay
in New Brunswick.
Somehow, Johnny Copeland knew from the time Shemekia was a toddler
that she would become a blues singer.
"I never got to ask him how he knew I was going to become a
but he knew what he knew. I always told him I was going to go to
and study to be a psychiatrist. But anyway, he was right," she
"He had been telling people for years that I’d be a singer. How
he knew, I have no idea, but he’d been saying it since I was four
Shemekia says she still may attend college part-time but, given
the success of "Turn The Heat Up," those plans are on hold
"I’m not ever going to walk away from the stage. If anything I’ll
go to school part time and be doing my gigs around that," she
"Turn The Heat Up" includes just one song co-written by
"Big Lovin’ Woman," but she pays homage to her late father
with "Ghetto Child," a song he wrote while he was still living
in Houston in 1963. The other tunes range from slow ballads like
In My Wounds" to upbeat, funny numbers like "I Always Get
My Man." Throughout, she sings powerfully, with two tons of soul,
and is reminiscent of a young Etta James.
Since the release of "Turn The Heat Up," Shemekia and her
band have performed at Chicago Blues Festival, the Montreal Jazz
and the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland, Maine, among
But Shemekia has not been too busy since the album’s release to write
songs of her own for an upcoming album for Alligator.
How has Copeland adjusted to the whirlwind of interviews and shows
that having a record out entails? "I’ve just been having a
ball," she says, "this is so
much what I want to be doing. I’m having a whole lot of fun and I
just hope it continues."
Although Copeland isn’t yet in a position to be able to afford to
carry a road manager with her, she’s happy to be paying her dues.
What’s the most difficult part of the business of being a blues
singer? Just that, she says.
"I think the business part of it all is the most difficult
she says. "If I could just go out and play the blues and not have
to watch my back every second, it would be great. It’s the everyday
things you’ve got to worry about when you’re on the road," she
says, adding that getting on stage and singing is the most natural
part of what she does.
"I have a band, and I’m responsible for all of them, and here
I am, 19 years old, and I have four adults I’m responsible for. I
have to make sure they get food, they have hotels to sleep in at
It’s a lot of responsibility."
"I complain about it sometimes, but this is what I want to
she says. "But I need to make more money, so I need to pay my
dues and just stay out on the road."
The late Johnny Copeland would often make four-day swings through
Germany and then fly back to New York to do a show in Boston the next
night, so Shemekia saw the lifestyle her father led up close and
Did she know what she was getting into?
"Yes. Everybody that I meet in the blues world is an
she adds, "now that I see how hard it is, now that I’m actually
out here doing this."
As a youngster growing up around a famous guitar playing father, she
also had the chance to meet many of the other performers in the blues
world, which she describes as "a big family of musicians."
A young Shemekia met John Hammond (now based in Jersey City), Stevie
Ray Vaughan, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Frankie Lee and Sonny
the latter three some of Johnny’s old running buddies from Texas.
Asked about vocal influences in her younger years,
says she took advantage of her father’s fabulous record collection
and learned from the blues singing men as well as the women. She was
a home girl, she recalls, and when she wasn’t in an after-school
she’d spend her afternoons and evenings at home, listening to records.
"I listened to Mahalia Jackson, Patsy Cline, Etta James, Koko
Taylor, and learned a lot from all of them. But I also listened to
a lot of the old Memphis Stax/Volt stuff, men like O.V. Wright, Sam
Cooke, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, and Wilson Pickett," she
"A lot of what I do comes from those guys."
Asked to comment on her plans for the near future, Shemekia is already
writing songs and thinking about her follow-up album for Alligator.
"Alligator is working harder than anything I’ve ever seen in my
life. Steve Hecht, my booking agent, is getting me all kinds of good
festival shows," she says, "some of them even before the
Clearly, "Turn The Heat Up" has a lot of life left to it,
and she is just beginning to tour more frequently outside the
Her deal with Alligator Records came about last spring after Alligator
Records boss Bruce Iglauer heard her sing at Chicago Blues, a club
in lower Manhattan.
"Immediately after that, we started talking and a few months later
I was I was signed to the label," she recalls matter-of-factly.
About a week later, her father died at New
York’s Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. His heart transplant
had been causing him some complications and the cause of death was
Shemekia’s mom, Sandra Copeland, recalls, "We learned that Bruce
Iglauer was seriously interested in signing Shemekia about a week
before Johnny died. He died a happy man, knowing that his daughter
had this contract."
— Richard J. Skelly
Brunswick. 732-246-3111. Saturday, August 1, 9:30 p.m.
Chicago Blues, 73 Eighth Avenue, New York, 212-924-9755.
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