Johnny Copeland earned his fame the hard way.
The Louisiana-born blues man spent countless years playing small clubs in the “Texas Triangle” of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas before working his way into bigger markets and drawing the attention of mass audiences.
But it was time well spent: Copeland, nicknamed “The Texas Twister,” built his reputation on his live performances, slowly winning over a growing number of loyal fans who earned him Grammy success.
It’d be hard to find a more deserving guitarist.
Born in Haynesville, La., Copeland was the son of sharecroppers. He was still a youngster when his family moved to Houston, leaving Copeland’s father behind. The youngster, however, inherited his father’s guitar.
He began playing in earnest as a teenager, enamored with classic blues men like T. Bone Walker. Ultimately, Copeland began earning his own reputation and would go on to play with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson and Freddy King.
But success eluded him. He released a number of albums, none of them commercially successful. He also picked up odd jobs here and there, earning the nickname “Clyde” during his years as a boxer.
The constant touring, however, began winning over audiences. Copeland earned a reputation as a master showman on stage, catching the attention of more prominent musicians and music industry insiders.
His big break came in the mid-1970s, when Copeland decided to gamble and move to New York. Working side jobs, Copeland began playing venues in Harlem and Greenwich Village, eventually branching out to shows along the East Coast. He also signed a record deal with Rounder Records, releasing seven albums that would begin to garner increasing attention from blues fans and other musicians.
In 1985, Copeland hit on his most commercially successful music project. He teamed up with blues guitarists Albert Collins and Robert Cray to record Showdown. The album went on to win a Grammy Award the following year.
Copeland had arrived. Sustaining his hectic touring schedule, Copeland became a regular attraction at local venues like The Turning Point and the Towne Crier, as well as New York City hotspots like Chicago Blues and S.O.B.’s.
Copeland was a master of Texas-style blues, and his growing acclaim had drawn the attention of another Texas blues man, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan invited Copeland to join him at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1985, and later brought Copeland on stage for shows at New York City’s 42nd Street Pier and at the Beacon Theater.
Meanwhile, Copeland continued touring and recording on his own, and his 1992 live release, Ain’t Nothing But a Party, was nominated for a Grammy.
But by then Copeland was in poor health. Diagnosed with a heart defect, he spent years in and out of hospitals. In 1997 he underwent a heart transplant, but died due to complications. He was 60, and only a decade into the success he had finally received.
However, Copeland’s musical legacy has survived. His daughter, Shemekia Copeland, is a prominent and successful blues singer in her own right.
She sure should be proud of her dad.
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(NOTE: This is part of my ongoing series of reports on guitar players who fly under the mainstream radar. Keep checking The Listening Room for future installments of guitar players you should know – JF)
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