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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

says, laughing.

"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

years old."

Shemekia says she still may attend college part-time but, given

the success of "Turn The Heat Up," those plans are on hold

for now.

"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


came out."

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

kidney failure.

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

Shemekia Copeland, the Old Bay, 61-63 Church Street, New

Brunswick. 732-246-3111. Saturday, August 1, 9:30 p.m.

Shemekia Copeland also performs Saturday, July 25, at

Chicago Blues, 73 Eighth Avenue, New York, 212-924-9755.

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