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Shemekia Copeland carries on in the family tradition 

Born into the blues

click to enlarge SUZANNE FOSCHINO
  • Suzanne Foschino

Some people stumble across the blues; others inherit them.

Shemekia Copeland falls into the latter camp. The highly accomplished daughter of Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, Shemekia was born and raised in Harlem, where her father moved after the 1970s disco boom and the oil crash that laid waste to Houston's live music scene.

By the time she was growing up, hip-hop had replaced disco as the neighborhood soundtrack. But blues, gospel, country and soul music still reigned supreme in the Copeland household.

"I was very proud of where I grew up, but I was fully aware that we were living in the ghetto," says the singer, whose soulful cover of her father's song "Ghetto Child" — about growing up dirt poor in "this so-called free land" — rings no less true today.

"My father wrote the song about Third Ward Texas over 50 years ago," says the Grammy-nominated electric blues singer. "And when I was growing up in Harlem, the song was still relevant, and it continues to be. I'd like to be like people who look at the world through rose-colored glasses. But I've been on this earth for 37 years, and so far I've been watching it get worse. I wish that wasn't true, but unfortunately it is."

On last year's Outskirts of Love album, Copeland covers blues classics like Solomon Burke's "I Feel a Sin Coming On," Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee's "The Battle Is Over" and Albert King's "Wrapped Up in Love Again." Her rendition of "Lord, Help the Poor and Needy," originally performed by North Mississippi hill-country blues artist Jessie Mae Hemphill, is especially moving.

"I always love to cover ladies like that," says Copeland. "Because, unless you're in the blues world, you wouldn't have necessarily heard of her."

She says it's much easier to cover songs from her parents' generation now that she's found her own identity and established herself as an artist in her own right. "I think that when you get started in the business, you're so busy trying to figure out your own voice that it's tougher to do things like that. But then, the more comfortable you become with who you are, the easier it becomes."

Copeland's resumé, meanwhile, speaks for itself: Her sophomore album, The Soul Truth — produced by Booker T. and the MGs guitarist Steve Cropper — earned a Grammy nomination. She's opened for Albert King and the Rolling Stones, been favorably compared to Ruth Brown and Mavis Staples, and shared a White House stage with Mick Jagger and Booker T. She was even crowned "The New Queen of the Blues" by blues legend Koko Taylor's daughter at the Chicago Blues Festival.

Such accomplishments speak not only to Copeland's natural talent, but also to the work ethic she inherited from her father. Even after being diagnosed with a degenerative heart condition, the bluesman continued to tour relentlessly, bringing his teenage daughter along as his opening act. It was only later that Shemekia realized he was doing that to help further her career.

"I've had so many joyous things happen," says the singer, who's still in awe of the legendary blues artists she met through her father. "This morning I was watching Lightning in a Bottle, this great movie that [Martin] Scorsese did about a bunch of blues artists. I mean, it had B.B. King, Solomon Burke, Gatemouth Brown, Natalie Cole, Ruth Brown, Odetta. And I'm just naming the ones that are deceased — that's not all of them.

"And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was like this epiphany I had, like, wow, they're not here. And so I was thinking to myself how truly blessed I was to be able to spend time with them."

  • Born into the blues

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