"Houston Press 1997 Music Awards. Best Blues. Joe 'Guitar' Hughes," he mumbled in his characteristic rock-bottom register. Then, lifting the heavy abstract sculpture above his head, Hughes raised his voice: "This one's for Johnny Copeland."
Coming from just about anyone else, such postmortem posturing might have seemed staged. In this case, though, there's no doubt it was founded on honest emotion. Hughes's grief, after all, runs two-fold: He is not only mourning the July 3 passing of one of Texas blues's most accomplished guitarists and gracious ambassadors, but the loss of a dear friend. The trophy dedication was the least he could do.
"They're all like family to me," Hughes says now of his kinship with the entire Copeland clan, its members divided between southeast Texas and Teaneck, New Jersey, where Copeland, 60, was living at the time of his death from complications resulting from heart surgery.
"They know I loved him."
Hughes isn't the only one around these parts to feel that way. Indeed, there was a lot for Houston to love about Copeland -- and he, in turn, reciprocated that love throughout his career. Though he was born on a farm in Haynesville, Louisiana, and spent much of his childhood in Arkansas, it was a hard-scrabble adolescence spent in the Third Ward that defined what Copeland would become; as far as the man himself was concerned, he was Texas through and through.
"He carried the banner everywhere he went," says Hughes. "I didn't know the prominence of what that meant until later; it covers a whole lot of bases."
Johnny "Clyde" Copeland moved to Houston with his family following World War II. And it was here, at the age of 13, that he came face-to-face with the blues, finding an idol in the legendary T-Bone Walker and an able tutor in Hughes. After meeting at a local talent show -- where Hughes was performing and Copeland was in the audience -- the two began running in the same crowd. Hughes taught his new friend how to play "note-by-note" on a beat-up acoustic guitar, giving him the basic tools he needed to follow in the footsteps of Walker. But despite that desire to emulate his hero, what Copeland had working from the get-go was all his own. With his slicing lead lines, wrenching sustains and booming, soul-wracked vocals, he laid claim to a sound that was a sight more bullish than Walker's.
Copeland cultivated that sound along the chitlin circuit in the mid '50s, playing with Clarence Samuels's band in speakeasies and juke joints all over Texas. He also had stints backing Big Mama Thornton and in a group fronted by another legend, Albert Collins. A string of recordings -- among them 1958's "Rock 'n' Roll Lily" and the early-'60s hit "Down on Bended Knee" -- on various labels followed, and for 15 years, Copeland did his best to make ends meet performing regionally and locally. Eventually, though, the guitarist decided he'd have to leave Texas to get ahead, so in 1975 he took off for New York City.
Away from home, success didn't come easily for Copeland; at one point, he was making ends meet by working at a hamburger joint between gigs. Gradually, though, the chips started to fall his way, and people began taking notice. By 1979, the folks at Rounder Records had seen enough of Copeland's tireless work ethic and volatile live shows to offer him a recording contract. He released a series of critically acclaimed full-length efforts in the '80s, the best of them 1981's horn-laced Copeland Special and 1986's Bringing It All Back Home, an intriguingly earnest marriage of blues and African music inspired by his travels abroad.
The early '90s saw Copeland's move to the Verve label. But soon, his recorded output and ability to tour were stymied by health problems. Just months after he finished recording 1996's Jungle Swing, another blues/Afro-folk affair, Copeland had a minor heart attack, and it wasn't long before doctors were forced to implant a "ventricle assist device" to prevent his ailing heart from shutting down completely. That was one of six open heart surgeries Copeland endured before his death, which came only a few months after a heart transplant in January of this year.
Copeland's funeral was held in Houston on July 10 at St. Agnes Baptist Church. Some 40 people -- including Copeland's wife Sandra and daughter Shemekia, who sang with her father on occasion -- flew in from the East Coast to attend the service. Copeland played his last performance here in April at the Houston International Festival, and Hughes, for one, couldn't think of a better location for his friend to make his final local stand.
"He was an ambassador of the blues," Hughes says. "He represented Texas well; it was his foundation."
Etc.... Fitzgerald's goes back to its roadhouse roots this weekend for the kickoff of its 20th-anniversary concert series, which runs through January. Saturday's show features Texas singer/songwriter faves Mason Ruffner and Lou Ann Barton.
-- Hobart Rowland