Of all the Texas bluesmen, none perhaps was so musically adventurous as the late, great Johnny Clyde Copeland. An innovator, a true triple threat of a performer, the "Texas Twister" was equally adept at writing, playing and singing the blues. These talents took him all over America, Europe, and even back to where it all began - Africa.
Johnny Copeland bio
Though born in Haynesville, Louisiana in 1937, Copeland's family in 1950 moved to Houston's Third Ward, the largest of that city's African-American ghettos. A neighborhood famous for dozens of gridiron behemoths, a few boxers and tennis stars Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil- "the 3rd" is home to an equally rich musical heritage. Lightnin' Hopkins, Albert Collins, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Arnett Cobb, and many others all originated here in the unpainted shotgun shacks just southeast of downtown Houston's skyward-thrusting petro-dollar majesty.
So there were two roads that led out of Third Ward, and for a while young Copeland tried to take them both. Almost simultaneously, he strapped on a guitar and laced up the boxing gloves, and took lessons in both fields from the same mentor- Joe "Guitar" Hughes (Hughes today is the elder statesman of Houston blues guitar players). Copeland, though older, then lagged behind Hughes musically, and in their first band, Johnny Clyde played rhythm. Sometimes, as Copeland revealed in a 1987 interview, he and Hughes weren't sure whether they were bluesmen or prize-fighters.
"Me and him used to fight every night. We'd get off the stage and fight all the time (laughs). He was always mean (laughs). If you didn't learn something quick, he'd just a lie back and kick you (laughs). He was real mean".
With a natural-born love of music and Hughes' fists spurring him on, Copeland delved into the Lone Star State's rich blues guitar heritage. "I listened to Gatemouth Brown and T-Bone Walker when I was coming up. And a host of local people like Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Lowell Fulson", Copeland recalled.
Hughes and Copeland played together as The Dukes of Rhythm less than a year, and then Johnny first heard the siren song that went on to sway literally millions: the wail of Albert Collins' Telecaster. Copeland quickly heeded the call of this 3rd Ward pied piper, ditching Hughes and the Dukes in favor of his new teacher.
A few years later, his apprenticeship complete, Johnny went solo and notched his first hit single, "Rock & Roll Lilly (Got A Face That No Man Could Love") in 1957. He toured continuously for almost twenty years on the Deep South "Chitlin Circuit", honing his chops in both swanky ballrooms and bloodstained dives. But as the years passed, the fans' musical tastes changed and Johnny didn't. When the audience wanted soul or disco, Johnny was not prepared to deliver. The mid-70's disco years were lean and hungry ones for Copeland, who was content to wait for the nation to come to its senses musically.
This brief period of doldrums afforded Johnny the opportunity to put down some roots, and he settled in Harlem. Sure enough his fortunes changed. Rounder Records came calling, and the Texas Twister was soon blowing harder than ever.
1977 marked the release of Copeland's first Rounder disc, the critically acclaimed “Copeland Special”. With this release, and the forthcoming Rounder platters (“Make My Home Where I Hang My Hat”, “Texas Twister”, “Bringing It All Back Home”), Johnny was reborn. Hitherto relatively unknown on the white blues-club circuit, in the late '70s and early '80s Johnny remedied his obscurity with an outpouring of sizzling albums and non-stop touring, winning a Grand Prix at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival. He perhaps reached his zenith in 1985, the year that marked Alligator Records release of “Showdown”, perhaps the finest Texas Blues guitar album of all time. In it, Johnny trades solos and vocals with Robert Cray and his old mentor Albert Collins, who had also swayed Cray into becoming a bluesman. From the opening riff of their invocation, the "T-Bone Shuffle", through to the last growls of 'Blackjack", Copeland more than holds his own with his former master and the young gun. The album is a masterpiece, perhaps the high-water mark in the careers of three legendary bluesmen, and for it the incendiary trio earned a Grammy.
Perhaps Johnny's most unique trait was his sense of blues history and musicology. Alone among bluesmen, Johnny toured Africa twice with both tours resulting in studio platters, 1982's “Bringing It All Back Home” and 1996's “Jungle Swing” (Verve). Johnny was pleased by his reception in his ancestral home, and had a Texas-size surprise in store for his hosts, as he told journalist Art Tipaldi: "I could tell the roots of the blues comes from there. They mostly understood the Delta Blues. They was expecting it to be all slow blues. But we surprised them and had the kids up dancin' on the stage. We were more uplifting than the Delta Blues they'd heard. The tour and record that came out of it have been very uplifting for my career".
Sadly Johnny had very little time left. After the 1996 tour of Africa, his chronic heart trouble (since 1995) flared up again. By 1997 he had had eight heart surgeries, including a transplant on New Year's Day of that year. But even that torment was unable to still the Texas Twister; by April he was touring again. Two months later he fell ill once more and went under the knife for the last time. He passed away on July 3, 1997, his lion heart stilled at last.
Happily we who remain behind will have his music to remember him by. Not only that, but be on the lookout for his blues-singing daughter Shemekia, 19 years-old and already acquiring a reputation as a "Natural Born Believer" in the blues.
(Note-at the time of the original writing of this bio: No session information was available at this writing so you're on your own as to who's playing, who wrote some of the songs, and when the recordings were made. We hope to have this information available on 1999 and later Edsel releases from the Crazy Cajun archives. )
~John Nova Lomax, September 1998
Notes on the Recordings
The album is kicked off by a quartet of songs among the bluesiest herein , first among them numerically and "bluesically" , “Gonna Make My Home Where I Hang My Hat". This version is a stripped-down predecessor to 1982's Rounder title track. This is Johnny alone, gutbucket as all get-out and it is a rare treat. It's the single purest blues I've heard from Johnny and as raw as yesterday's batch of moonshine. Next up we have two more of Copeland's lost classics: "Stealing" and "Working Man's Blues", both of which are simply fantastic. No collection of Copeland's music is complete without these two crackers, nor for that matter any compilation of post-war Houston Blues. "Stealing" is a thumping devil's sermon well-preached by Copeland in a particularly leonine voice, and is not far off from the work of Guitar Slim at his best. As for "Working Man's Blues", this native Houstonian can tell you that somehow Copeland injected the totality of this city into one blues. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But, to me, this is one of the most evocative blues I have heard in many a moon. Great horn charts and pounding piano, along with Johnny's scraping rhythm and tasty solo, all conspire to summon up a legion of after-dark images of our mutual hometown. Once in an interview Copeland was asked what to him was the blues. His one-word answer: "Texas". Nowhere else in his oeuvre is this conveyed more clearly.
All of the above three tunes lead me to wonder what took the blues cognoscenti all those years to "discover" a man of such obvious talents?
A spiky guitar intro heralds the arrival of Copeland's fried-in-batter re-make of Lady Day's standard "Ain't Nobody's Business", which builds nicely to a sanctified crescendo and closes out the blues quartet. Three of the next four numbers ("I've Gotta Go Home"; "Hurt, Hurt, Hurt"; "Somethin' You Get") are reminiscent of the Duke/Peacock big-band R&B sound pioneered by that label's legendary in-house bandleader, Joe Scott. "Somethin'" in particular finds Copeland in good voice, the band in fine fettle (especially the sax-man). The above tunes focus almost exclusively on Johnny's under-rated vocal abilities. This man could sing, guitar-god status notwithstanding!
The odd tune out of this quartet, "Slow Walk You Down", is something of an oddity in that it would not sound particularly out of place on side two of Abbey Road.
Next we move to a duet of touching eulogies to those who preceded Copeland in the pantheon, made all the sadder by Johnny's recent death. The "Johnny Ace Medley" is also an utterly romantic slow-dance number, a smooth remembrance of the Bayou City's suave, tragic balladeer. Ace was found dead backstage at a Christmas Eve concert in 1954, his record atop the R&B charts, supposedly the victim of an unlucky game of Russian Roulette. It was whispered at the time, though never proven, that there were darker forces at work (read: Duke/Peacock boss Don Robey had him "whacked".) At any rate, like Sam Cooke's, Ace's early death robbed the world of years of great music.
"Coquette" and "Don't Tell Me" showcase Copeland very much in a Crescent City frame of mind. These are mellow, elegiac gulf coast R&B selections with Johnny's guitar accompanying an unknown singer. Each of these displays a strong affinity for Fats Domino, with the latter cut also a little reminiscent of that other Gulf Coast boxing bluesman, Champion Jack Dupree.
"Four Dried Beans" is an organ-driven rave-up, while the Everlys get the deep-fried Bayou City treatment on Copeland's version of their classic, "Wake Up Little Susie". A bare-bones dance number, "The Hip Hop", closes out the album's original material. ~John Nova Lomax, September 1998