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Copeland Feeds on the Energy

September 23, 1993|JIM WASHBURN

Sometimes it seems that the people who have the most trouble getting used to blues festivals are blues musicians. With years of practically living in dark smoky clubs, their music echoing off dank walls until closing time, some blues players might just be disoriented by such festival features as daylight and fresh air. Some may just be numbed by decades of grueling touring, so much so that they fall right into their rote "how you all tonight?" patter at festivals, even if it's high noon.

Not so Johnny Copeland. The Texas Twister has howled through more than his share of clubs since the early 1950s but on a festival stage, he usually just kicks his gritty intensity up a few more notches until even the sun is no competition for him.

"It takes more energy to play a festival," Copeland says. "But for me it's easier to get that energy because you know there's all those people out there hearing you."

His onstage impact could be seen a few years back at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Down in the pit in front of the stage, a British photo-journalist actually fell over backward after lensing the ferocity with which Copeland approached the microphone. "My God," he remarked, righting himself. "It looked like a lion was coming at me!"

Copeland doesn't exactly slough off his smaller audiences, either. He played a show at Bogart's about four years ago when there were, at most, 40 people in the club and he proceeded to burn up the stage with soul-saturated vocals and incisive guitar lines.

Speaking by phone last week from his apartment in New York City, the Louisiana-born, Texas-trained 56-year-old explained: "I always try to give 100% each time I work. Sometimes I fall short, but at least the effort is there. And I don't think you find bad gigs where there's a blues audience, because they're so appreciative. There might only be two people there, but they let you know they appreciate what you're doing."

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Copeland began receiving international notice in the early '80s, after three decades of hard work and modest regional successes. Starting with Rounder Records' "Copeland Special" album in 1981, he introduced himself to a new generation with a distinctive style of blues that mixed earthy emotion with a willingness to experiment, and he was acclaimed as a fresh, vital force.

Drawing from Southern soul music, he stretched beyond the chordal confines of most blues. Fans didn't seem to mind: He has won four W.C. Handy Awards, the Grammies of the blues world, along with an actual Grammy in 1987, shared by Robert Cray and Albert Collins for the "Showdown!" album.

His most notable musical excursion was "Bringing It All Back Home" in 1984, on which he played with African musicians. He had toured the continent two years before and had fallen in love with the people. "I'm hoping to go back soon. My friend Kenny Neal just came back from over there, and he made me feel so good. He said they still remembered me."

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Here at home, he somehow got shunted onto the slow track in the late '80s. Even though he could still spend 200 nights a year on the road, he wasn't getting the attention he once did. The same year he got that Grammy, he found his career drifting.

"There were little things like the business side of this falling apart in '87. The company that had managed me for eight years fell apart, just disappeared, and left me out there hanging. So it was like starting all over again," he said with a laugh that didn't seem to fit the situation.

"Well, things will happen, you know? You can't win them all. You may not win but one , but that one can carry you over if you play it right, so I don't worry about it."

Things indeed have come around for Copeland. He was signed last year to the Verve division of PolyGram and is soon to release his second album for the label.

The first, "Flyin' High," found him in some classy company--Dr. John, Buckwheat Zydeco and jazz hornmen David (Fathead) Newman and Hank Crawford, among others. Copeland said he has loved the sound of horns in the blues ever since he inherited Albert Collins' horn-laden band in 1953, when Collins quit music for a time. Copeland also can be heard with a horn or three doing guest vocals on jazz pianist Randy Weston's current "Volcano Blues" album, also on Verve.

His own new album--"Catch Up With the Blues," due early next year--will feature the Memphis Horns along with guitarists Lonnie Brooks, Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown and Joe Hughes. Hughes, who also guests on "Flyin' High," was one of Copeland's boyhood friends. They and pianist Floyd Philips, who still plays in Copeland's band, formed their first group together in Houston at age 16.

He stuck with the blues through the '50s, though the regional success he found in the '60s was as a soul singer. Copeland said he hadn't even thought about singing when he started out, and credits that for his distinctive style.

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