Though he's lived in the New York City area for more than two decades, Johnny Copeland still introduces himself on-stage as "from the Third Ward." For some, covering that much territory might be a bit of a geographic stretch, but as Copeland's latest album, Jungle Swing -- not to mention a significant body of his work since a pivotal moment in 1983 -- shows, he's got a right to describe himself as a citizen of just about anywhere on the globe that he wants. Call Copeland a world beat bluesman if you insist on a label; his innovative merging of African percussion rhythms with the blues he learned as a teen in southeast Houston has resulted in the reunion of two long-separated, but still-related, styles.
That kinship is the central theme of Jungle Swing, which was recorded with Copeland's touring band plus percussionist Kimati Dinizulu and vocalists Seth Sibanda, Bhekisisa Khoza and Tsepo Mokone in early 1995, just as whispers of the severity of Copeland's oft-rumored health problems began to circulate around Houston. Although Copeland says that "I was really sick when we recorded Jungle Swing" and describes the release as "a producer's [John Snyder] and manager's [Holly Bullamore] thing," what resulted was a remarkably strong testament to Copeland's "it's all just music" ethos. Songs such as his "The Jungle" and "Kasayubu" feature uncannily smooth transitions from Texas blues shuffle to African polyrythmic percussion solos that, on first listen, convince the listener that they must have missed something in the shift from one genre to another -- and, with repetition, prove that the oft-theorized West African roots of the blues are much closer to the surface than had been previously imagined.
It was a proximity that Copeland first became aware of in 1983, when he signed on to a State Department-sponsored tour of western Africa. What began as a series of gigs soon became a spiritual transformation. A stroll through the marketplace in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville resulted in Copeland's joining a line dance behind a troupe of African percussionists; the energy and emotions of that moment have marked his music ever since. Copeland has remarked repeatedly that the moment made him aware for the first time of his deep racial, spiritual and cultural ties to Africa. No quote could underscore the sincerity of that commitment as strongly as the music that resulted: in 1984, Copeland returned to Africa, assembled a multinational cast of African musicians, merged them with his blues band and recorded Bringing It All Back Home, a cult classic that foreshadowed the popularity of world beat music.
Later, Copeland discovered he wasn't the first blues artist to make the connection between African drums and American shuffles. After recording Back Home, Copeland was contacted by legendary Chicago bassist Willie Dixon. Three decades earlier, he had undergone a similar African experience that resulted in a song titled "Jungle Swing." "He gave me the song in '84," Copeland recalls. "Willie said, 'Cut it.' I said I'd just finished recording, and he said, 'Take it, maybe later on.' " It's a testament to both Dixon's songwriting skills and the sincerity of both artists' transformations that only a trip to Jungle Swing's liner notes reveals that the solitary song on the CD not written by Copeland is the title track.
In keeping with Copeland's enthusiasm for jumbling genres, Jungle Swing's overtly Afrocentric tracks share grooves with creations that reflect the traditions of his Houston upbringing. In the disc's strongest tribute to the days when Copeland learned his craft alongside the likes of Albert Collins and Joe "Guitar" Hughes, "We Love Walking on the Wild Side's" features a boisterous interplay between Copeland's electric Gibson, Byard Lancaster's tenor saxophone and the piano riffs of barbecue guru Floyd Phillips; the history of two members of that trio stretches back four decades to when Copeland and Phillips were members of the Houston doo-wop quintet, the Dukes of Rhythm.
Though Copeland's thoughts and music keep turning back to Houston, it's been a while since his body made the trip. His last Houston appearance came during the 1994 Juneteenth blues festival. It was a memorable visit, one that resulted in the latest in a series of magic moments that drew heavily on his lifelong association with Albert Collins -- and a mystical song that has influenced them since the early days of their careers.
A combination of heavy rain and a home game of the NBA championships resulted in a record low turnout, despite the unique opportunity to see Copeland and Coco Montoya perform with Collins' Icebreakers; Collins had died the previous Thanksgiving, and this was the first time since that Copeland had played with his former associate's band. The enthusiasm of the crowd and the performers themselves became most evident when Copeland and the Icebreakers performed "Black Cat Bone." Those who have a hard time imagining a lyric such as "Followed that big-legged woman / All the way to San Antone" sung with religious intensity needed to have been there when the voices of the congregation lifted in unison.
"Black Cat Bone," which Copeland says -- with considerable understatement -- "just really seems to do something to people," has been a Third Ward anthem since the 1960s, when it was the signature song of steel guitarist Harding "Papa Hops" Wilson. It was largely due to Copeland that much later, and purely by accident, the tune came to worldwide attention.
In 1985, Copeland and Collins joined forces in a recording studio in Chicago to cut an album for Alligator Records. That session, which resulted in the Grammy-winning Showdown! album, had been conceived as a three-way duel between Copeland, Collins and Gatemouth Brown. When Brown decided not to participate, Robert Cray was called in to fill the third guitar slot.
Although Copeland was displaying his usual exuberance, Collins was distracted. In an attempt to draw out his friend, Copeland took advantage of a break to reminisce about Hops Wilson and jam -- without knowing the conversation and music were being captured on tape. After feigning surprise over the "news" that Wilson had been dead for a decade, Copeland encouraged Collins to share memories of seeing Wilson "lay that steel in his lap and get down." On the CD, growing enthusiasm can be heard in Collins' voice until, with a playfully coaxing tone, Copeland asks, "How'd you like the way he sang ...?" and Copeland, Collins and Cray launch into one of the most chilling, authentic moments of Texas electric blues ever recorded. Their version of "Black Cat Bone" -- in all its Gulf Coast glory -- became the song that Showdown! is best remembered for. Its allegorical drawings on the mystical "devil's music" roots of the blues established "Black Cat Bone" as Texas' answer to Robert Johnson's spine-tingling "Crossroads."
More recently, "Black Cat Bone" has also been a song that provided a welcome distraction from the health crisis that's engulfed Copeland since not long after his 1994 appearance at the Juneteenth festival. A few months after that performance, an emergency coronary bypass operation revealed that Copeland's heart was on an irreversible path to failure, and he was placed under close medical supervision while awaiting a new heart. In the 15 months since, Copeland's life has revolved as much around medicine as music. And as might be expected from a performer whose affable personality can make a blues enthusiast out of almost anyone, his daily contact with the medical profession has resulted in a new group of fans.
The trademark chuckle that has long characterized interviews with Copeland is as strong as ever when he explains that "my surgeon [Dr. Mhet "The Wizard of" Oz] even had me write out 'Black Cat Bone' for him so he could learn it." When Dr. Oz decided Copeland's condition had stabilized enough for him to perform on an occasional basis, his audiences included a sizable contingent from the cardiac unit at Manhattan's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. "I've done shows recently where there would be 50 or 60 people from the hospital there," Copeland notes.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Copeland's habit of introducing new audiences to the blues, from African festival crowds to the New York doctors and nurses who monitor his health, is just part of his long-standing commitment to ensuring the future of the blues. Another element of that commitment has been, and still is, encouraging the careers of up-and-coming musicians. During the same years that he was both exploring his African roots and celebrating his Houston heritage, Copeland's close friendship with Stevie Ray Vaughan showed his strong support of the contention that "blues ain't got no color." Copeland still remembers Vaughan as both a close friend and cherished collaborator.
"Stevie was my man," Copeland proclaims about the artist who joined him on the 1983 Texas Tornado album. "I love that brother, that was my man. One night I brought my mama over to Fitzgerald's. I got up and did my show, and then Stevie came on after me. Now keep in mind my mama loved the blues, and when Stevie got through playing and it was time for me to go back on she said, 'You sure you want to go back up there?' "
Even now, it's a memory that results in peals of laughter from Copeland. But it's a matter of pride to Copeland that he, his mother and Vaughan are all elements of a music that seems destined to keep changing to fit its place in the cultural landscape of America and the world. Adding a new element to guarantee the future of the blues is Copeland's daughter, Shemekia. "She's singing in my shows with me," Copeland notes as proudly as any father could who sees his legacy continuing through his child. "She's 17, but she sounds like she's got the blues."
Johnny Copeland performs at 9 p.m. Friday, September 6, at Billy Blues Bar and Grill, 6205 Richmond Avenue. Tickets are $12. Trudy Lynn opens. For info, call 266-9294.