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Young Blood

At 20, Shemekia Copeland is more than old enough to sing the blues

Take a glance at the record charts these days, and you'll see what looks like a senior high slumber party invitation list. Teenage girls are driving sales in all genres, from pop (Britney Spears) to R&B (Brandy, Monica) to country (LeAnn Rimes) to even, hell, classical (Charlotte Church). But in the blues genre, there's only one teen queen (though technically she's no longer a teen since she turned 20 on April 10) who could blow the tissue out of Britney Spears's bra with one gust of her powerful voice, an instrument one critic has accurately likened to a hot blast from an open furnace. That Shemekia Copeland's Alligator Records debut is called Turn the Heat Up is purely coincidental.

Despite her age, Copeland has already been favorably compared to such blues legends as Etta James, Ruth Brown and Carla Thomas. She also certainly has the pedigree to continue the blues tradition since she's the daughter of the late Houston blues singer/guitarist Johnny Clyde Copeland.

"I want to get more young people into the blues, and I'm sure that my age might help draw them in," she says. "But when a lot of them hear the word, they think of it as picking cotton in the cotton fields. They don't think of it as contemporary music, that it's all, 'My baby done left me,' and that it hasn't gone anywhere. But it has."

Copeland also says her age allows her to perform with a youthful energy that she admits she won't have at 40. Of course, there's also a downside. "Some people might go, 'What the hell does she know about the blues being so young?' " says Copeland. "But I sing what I know about -- no more, no less."

Well, given the shake-it-to-the-ground material on Turn the Heat Up, Copeland is obviously one apt student. Supported by the muscular guitar playing of Jimmy Vivino and the slinky keyboard romps of Brian Mitchell, her big-cannon boom of a voice is both titillating and threatening as it goes through vocal gymnastics on tracks such as "I Always Get My Man," "Suspicion," "Your Mama's Talking" and the only track she co-wrote, the self-descriptive "Big Lovin' Woman" (which has Copeland claiming the need for "a man and a half" to love her right). But Copeland also shows an extremely careful and sensitive flip side on the ballads "Married to the Blues," "It Don't Hurt No More" and the aching "Salt in My Wounds."

Copeland must have some chameleon in her family tree as well, as the record shows us how she morphs from the witty gold digger of "My Kind of Guy" to the jilted bride of "Cold Feet" to the sassy lover on "My Turn Baby," a give-and-take duet with bluesman Joe Louis Walker.

Singing with such compassion and conviction, Copeland seems to have already been through dozens of adult relationships, most of which we could assume ended badly. When asked if it's her own experience or careful lyrical interpretation that imbues these numbers with such inner pain, Copeland quickly brings up the man who unknowingly may have helped launch her career, Jason Rutter.

"When I was six years old, he was in my class at school, and I was so in love with this guy, I thought he was the greatest," Copeland recalls. "But he had some other little girl as his girlfriend, and I remember feeling just like crap. And that wasn't even kindergarten yet."

Okay, so it wasn't exactly the torrid broken relationship of the decade.
But it was a start.
Hovering over Turn the Heat Up, and in her thoughts today, is the long shadow of her father and musical mentor, whom she credits with really setting her priorities straight about career choice. Though she shared the stage with her father at such places as Harlem's famed Cotton Club as early as the age of eight, Copeland received what she explains as "the calling" only a few years ago.

"My daddy used to say, 'Nobody wants to hear you singing out there for an extra buck; you've got to have the need to do it, the kind of need that if you weren't singing, you'd be sick,' " she says. "And it wasn't until then that I really knew this is what I wanted to do."

Further education emanated from the family stereo, as the voices and sounds of Patsy Cline, Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, Aretha, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Jackie Wilson all reached Copeland's young ears. "I was lucky my parents exposed me to that kind of music," she says. "And I feel sorry for people my age who don't know about them."

Few in the audience at Johnny Copeland shows, where Shemekia Copeland opened during the '90s, could fail to notice a passing of the torch. As her father's health began to fail on tour, she became a bigger part of the show. And when he died in 1997, Copeland decided to stake her full-fledged claim to the family business. She pays tribute to her father on her new record with a rendition of his 1963 tune "Ghetto Child."

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