About one third of the way through our hour long conversation with Blues Queen Shemekia Copeland she suddenly, momentarily breaks it off, promising to call us right back on a different line.
“You know what Honey? I’m gonna call you right back on my house phone right now okay?”
Seconds later we reconnect and she explains the situation.
“I’m sorry. My cell phone only works when I sit in a certain spot and I’m making my husband breakfast.” We offer apologies for intruding on Mr. Orlando Wright’s breakfast and continue where we left off which was talking about Shemekia’s working with Dr. John on her 2002 album, Talking To Strangers. When asked whose decision it was to use Dr. John as the producer she unabashedly states the decision was hers.
“It was my decision. I’ve had a relationship with him since I was a kid. He was a great friend of my father’s and was a big supporter of me from the very beginning of my career. So it was a natural thing to do, for me to want to be with him.”
We wrote some songs together. We had a ball. We had so many people, so many great musicians. Herman Ernest, who played drums with him for many years and is now passed away was on the project. Dave Barard played bass. We just had an amazing time. It was just awesome. It was really, really great.
We recorded at the Hit Factory in New York . That was when Mac (Dr. John)was still living’ in New York . He’s not living there now.”
Three years after Talking To Strangers, Memphis Soul Man Steve Cropper was at the production helm for Shemekia’s The Soul Truth release.
“I didn’t know he was producing, but when I found out he was, I was like oh, that’s a wonderful idea. Until we did that project, he hadn’t produced in many, many years, so I was excited when I found out. Working with Dr. John was about the closest experience I had to working with my father. Working with Cropper, you know, he had a whole different type of energy. Dr. John is about the most laid back cat you’re ever gonna meet in your life. Cropper is the complete opposite; energy, energy, energy, energy, energy. They were both completely different but great experiences.”
On the liner notes to The Soul Truth, Steve Cropper thanks the late Dobie Gray. Reflecting on Dobie Gray and more recently, Popsy Holmes, Shemekia waxes nostalgic.
“I’m glad I got a chance to work with him before we lost him. We did a duet together, and he sang background vocals too. We’re losing so many great artists. I just found out last night that Popsy Dixon of The Holmes Brothers has stage four bladder cancer and is in hospice. (Popsy Dixon passed away on January 9, 2015, before this story was published. RIP.)
I’m destroyed by that. I adore him. I love all those guys. I’ve been seeing The Holmes Brothers since I was a kid. My father used to take me to see those guys when they lived in New York. I’m sorry for him and his brothers. They’re so tight. It breaks my heart.”
In a prior Blues Blast interview, Sherman Holmes of The Holmes Brothers related how the group would like to again play more dates than the 150 or so per year they’ve been averaging in recent years. Shemekia comments on their work ethic.
“That’s amazing, those guys still wanna work. That’s the true test that you love what you are doing so much. I probably to about 100 dates a year and that’s down from when I originally started as well. Based on what we have done, I feel we could do more. But you know, I’m just grateful for any work I get.”
Having started her singing career at age 16 Shemekia is still a young woman belying the fact that she’s been in the business 20 years. She insist however, that she was born an old soul.
“You know, I was born old. I was born a little old lady so I didn’t have much in common with young people. I didn’t really have a whole lot of friends in high school. I was kinda doin’ my own thing, marching to the beat of my own drum. I was already an individual at that time. Never trying to keep up with a group or being involved in anything. You know, some kids were into sports. I wasn’t into that. Other kids were into silliness, which kids are supposed to be into. I never went to prom or homecoming or graduation or any of that. I was just not interested.
I was in choir for a little bit. Most of the music I did in school was actually in Jr. High school. By the time I got in High School I was kinda already doin’ my own thing with Blues. That wasn’t the type of music they were doing in choir in high school. So then I started pretty much spending most of my time going, then sittin’ in with dad and his band.”
She remembers the first time she travelled to Texas with her dad and meeting Trudy Lynn.
“The first time I went to Texas with my father, Trudy Lynn was there and that’s how I knew who she was. You know when you go to a lot of these towns, you’ll find a lot of well kept secrets within the town and I think that in Houston , she might be one of the well kept secrets.
I saw my dad doing some really cool things. He taught me that you don’t have to be put in a box just because you choose a particular genre of music. That we’re all connected, all the music is connected. It doesn’t matter if it’s Africa, Brazil or Asia . We’re all connected in some kind of way and musically, we can all put those sounds together and work together to make something beautiful, which people are doing and it’s wonderful.
People don’t realize what I’ve “stolen” from my father. I’m kinda grateful that I was born a girl. Because if I was a guitar player and a male, I think it would’ve been a whole lot harder for me, because people would do a whole lot more comparing. Fortunately, as a girl, they can’t see what I’ve taken from him as much. I mean, I’ve stolen all of his phrasing and voicing. If I was a guitar player, it would be a little bit harder for me cuz everybody would compare me more, saying, ‘she don’t sound like her daddy,’ or, she’s no Johnny Clyde Copeland. So being a female, they’re not gonna expect me to be that so it’s wonderful. Being female helps me a lot. Also you can come out and people will say, ‘oh, that’s Johnny Copeland’s daughter’ or ‘that’s so and son or daughter,’ but they don’t know if your gonna be any good. And you have to prove yourself so nobody can compare you if you are doing something completely different.”
Shemekia insists that she is still completely connected and surrounded by Johnny Clyde Copeland. She listens to her dad’s music all the time. She sheds a little light on how deep the connection is.
“Oh man, my father is spiritually all around me. I always feel like I don’t step on that stage without him. It’s real deep and I know for a fact he’s there. I’m not sayin’ I think he’s there. He’s there with others who take care of me and look after me. I also have a lot of great friends in spirit too that I think look after me or watch over me.”
She has also been blessed with a host of Blues icons in the physical that have taken and continue to take special interest in her well being.
“Ruth Brown and Koko Taylor were both incredibly kind to me. They showed nothing but love to me. Ruth Brown gave me the clothes off her back. When she found out that when my father died and I had no money, no nothin’ and I’d gotten nominated for a Blues Music Award, she went in her closet and gave me boxes of clothes. It was just a kind, kind gesture. So for the Blues Music Awards the first time out, I wore something she gave me.
Ruth Brown did important work for all artists in this business. She got totally screwed as far as royalties were concerned. So she worked tirelessly for the rights of and the education of artists after her so that it wouldn’t happen to them. That was very important.
And Koko Taylor, oh my God, she would call me and check on me, just to see how I was doing. Then she would call my mother and make sure that what I was telling her was correct. It’s a special kind of love and I’ll appreciate them always for that.
When I first started in this business, my mom went out on the road with me. She doesn’t go out with me now but I was grateful to have her cuz I was young and didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
Shoot, when I started in this business, everybody told me always like be careful. Watch out for drugs, watch out for this and that. When I came out on the road, people were bringin’ me tea and Ricola.
I’ve been pretty blessed. Most of the time I’ve run into very very positive, wonderful people out here on this road. Dr. John, Steve Cropper, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Little Milton and his Road Manager Scrap Iron, all these people took me under their wing and all were very supportive. I really can’t complain.
Though no longer in production, Shemekia Copeland had her own 6 hour weekly radio show on the Sirius network which premiered in 2006.
“That was awesome. I mean, I really loved that. I had a ball doin’. It was great. The best part of it for me was that my show was 6 hours long and every hour I got to feature one of my favorite lady Blues singers and play a couple of their songs which, for me, was like, why I wanted to do the show. I feel like a lot of male artists are always played on the radio and female artists aren’t played enough. So I got to feature 6 ladies every show, which was awesome because I got to play more than one of their songs.
Some of the artists we featured were, of course Koko Taylor and Ruth Brown, Etta James, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey, I mean, the list goes on, Bonnie Raitt and Aretha Franklin. We definitely featured Sugar Pie DeSanto which was a great show because people were callin’ in cuz they hadn’t heard of her before. It was cool that we introduced a lot of people to Sugar Pie.
You know, I’ve never really gotten any chance to spend any time with her or talk to her, which makes me real sad, but I definitely love her and know of her and have a whole lotta respect for her.”
We eventually touch on a pet peeve of Shemekia Copeland’s-Artists who use the Blues to revive their careers.
“I feel like you have so many of us who do this music because we love it. We do it for the love of the music. I’m a lifer. I love Blues music, I’ve loved it from the beginning. I’ve always called myself a Blues artist and will continue to call myself a Blues artist no matter where the music might take me. And so many people use it to either help build their career and then they leave it, and they couldn’t give two craps about it, or their career is on a lull and they say ‘Oh okay, I’m just gonna put out a Blues record you know, and do something Bluesy. It’s okay if you’ve always loved it and you kinda wanna go back to it, but that wasn’t what you were originally doin’.”
Then there are the music critics who say Shemekia’s voice is so big that she could do well in other genres. She emphatically dismisses that theory.
“I say thank you, but I like doing what I’m doing. I don’t feel like being a Blues Musician limits me. Just because I call myself a Blues singer and I am a Blues singer doesn’t mean that I’m limited to just singing Blues. So if you have a Rock & Roll record and you want me to sing on it, call me.”
One of the many highlights of Shemekia’s career was her televised performance at the White House entitled “In Performance At The White House: Red, White and Blues.”
“It was amazing. It was just surreal. First of all, you’re in the White House, that’s number one and you’re preparing to play for two of the most important people in the world right now. And not only that, as far as being a musician is concerned, you are among some of the greatest. It was a big deal, amazing. And it’s such a wonderful thing to have someone in the White House who’s familiar with the music.
We ask her about the popularity of the Blues outside the United States.
“Well, I’m always amazed at how much people love this music outside of our country. France , Norway , Switzerland . I couldn’t believe how many people came out to the Blues Festival in India when I was there. I’m grateful for it. I hope the fervor continues cuz I’ve got another forty years to work.
Speaking of work, Shemekia has nothing but praise for her working band that keeps, in her words, “The Shemekia Copeland train on the tracks. In April of 2015, Arthur Neilson will have been my guitarist 17 years. He directs us all. I have Kevin Jenkins on bass. He’s been with me for 10 years. Willie Scandlyn, my rhythm guitarist has been aboard over 5 years. My drummer has been with me a little over a year now. His name is Robin Gould.”
When urged to discuss her songwriting process, Shemekia reveals that, “I’m more of an idea person. I don’t sit down with a piece of paper and say, ‘okay, I’m gonna write a song now.’ I don’t think it can happen organically when you do things that way. That’s why I think there’s so much crap out there. I feel like everybody thinks they’re a songwriter, when, in reality, they’re somebody who just writes a song, which is completely different from being a songwriter.
There’s a real art to it that many people don’t possess, but feel they do. They singlehandedly help with the demise of the music business. I remember when people used to make whole records and the record had a theme. To get the whole big picture you actually had to listen to the whole thing. Now, everybody just wants to hear the one song cuz they know the rest of it is gonna be crap.
My favorite songwriters are Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding. Steve Cropper is a great songwriter. All the guys from Motown who wrote. They were pushing out some amazing songs and lyrics. It would really help if people knew the difference between great songwriters and people who just write songs.” (Laughs)
As we come to the end of our exchange, Shemekia reiterates her commitment to her craft . “I’m a lifer in he Blues and I’ve loved it from the beginning. I’ve got another 40 years to work. At least.
Visit Shemekia’s website at www.shemekiacopeland.com
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine
Interviewer Tee Watts is music director at KPFZ 88.1 fm in Lakeport, CA and road manager for Sugar Pie DeSanto.