By Daniel Garrett
Shemekia Copeland, Deluxe Edition
Remastered by Collin Jordan and Bruce Iglauer
Produced by Bob DePugh and Bruce Iglauer
Alligator Records, 2011
I have been curious about Shemekia Copeland for years, but until now only heard a few of her songs, though her albums include Turn the Heat Up, Wicked, Talking to Strangers, and The Soul Truth. Born in Harlem, Shemekia Copeland is the daughter of Texas blues guitarist Johnny Clyde Copeland, and great claims have been made for the young woman, with Copeland being compared to Etta James and Tina Turner, elders and legends, two singers of mastery as well as intensity. Shemekia Copeland, who has performed with B.B. King, Koko Taylor, and Buddy Guy, has been welcomed by critics and the blues audience in clubs and at festivals, and has appeared on television and in film. Alligator Records’ Deluxe Edition of Shemekia Copeland’s work allows a more attentive listen for those who know her work less well: the anthology contains sixteen songs taken from her albums.
It is easy to be skeptical of advertising in a culture that could sell ice to Eskimos and heaters to Arab desert dwellers, but Shemekia Copeland is that rare, real thing: a force of nature. Shemekia Copeland is a woman who can harness, train, and drive her own strength; and she has a big, hard voice, full of a nearly relentless power. She is presented beautifully, and the song productions on Deluxe Edition are expert, and no expense seems to have been spared. The sound is clear and loud, and the guitar-playing alone—by Jimmy Vivino, Arthur Neilson, Hugh McCracken, Mike Welch, Steve Cropper, Bob Britt, and Reggie Wooten—is expressive, inventive, and vital. Shemekia Copeland’s songs have the gift of variety—it is actually a result of intelligence and taste, so the gift is ours.
“I’m getting tired of wearing my overcoat to bed,” Shemekia Copeland sings in a voice of force and sass in “Turn the Heat Up,” a complaint about the chilliness of a relationship and a request for more passion. One initially hears that voice, and immediately wonders, Is she always that tough? (Do women in the blues, such as Bessie Smith and Koko Taylor, have to be tough to match the difficulties of experience, or to equal the bravado of men?) Is Copeland choosing a public persona? Her voice rolled over this listener’s reservations. However, it is a unique bass rhythm, one close to funk music, that is the best thing about “Livin’ on Love,” which declares a familiar romantic nonsense about love—“nothing else matters when you’re living on love”—that this listener does not identify with traditional blues songs, which were shaped, often, by practical considerations. One of the reasons for the blues—for sorrow, singing, and the need for transcendence through understanding description and salty wit—was the inability to afford food, clothes, shelter, and transportation on a consistent basis. Desperation made love more significant and less stable. Yet, here, Copeland, in actuality a full-bodied woman, claims that she does not need to eat. One of the strongest compositions of Deluxe Edition is “Ghetto Child,” a song that Copeland herself wrote, a downbeat blues, a classic sound, which—measured and passionate—has an element of the spiritual in both voice and music; and it is a sad account of a life of deprivation, solitude, and trouble.
A warning to a cheating man by a good, suffering woman is followed by the fulfillment of that warning, when she leaves the man, and the warning is stern, accurate with detail, even funny, in “When A Woman’s Had Enough.” There is nothing old-fashion about that song—Prince might envy the guitar rhythms. The song “It’s 2 A.M.”—with the line “It’s 2 a.m., do you know where your baby is?”—opens with a rock rhythm that is joined by blues twangs without losing the original rhythm; and the tune, about the maddening ignorance of a lover’s whereabouts, is a firm fusion piece, a rave-up that does not slow down. Threatening admonition is given in “Better Not Touch,” as in look but do not touch—or else. “Don’t whisper that you love me—say it out loud,” Copeland sings in the slow, soulful blues, “Don’t Whisper,” a composition about the remaining distance in a relationship, a lack of public recognition of a love affair. Is the beloved ashamed of his lover? (It could be a song about disapproved body size, class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.) “We always stay in, talking about places I’ve never been,” she sings. There is no shame in loving, she advises in a country both permissive and puritanical, one that praises angels but loves to hate the demons it creates. The song is a well-constructed and wonderfully performed composition of clarity, emotion, thought, and meaning; it has a classical resonance and rigor.
One can hear blues, rock, and country music in “Sholanda’s,” a song focused on a beauty shop, a place of personal pampering and community. Copeland’s singing is hard-charging in the fast, furious “Wild, Wild Woman,” in which she declares, “I’m a wild, wild woman and you’re a lucky man.” The sound of Copeland’s voice during those times when it is softer, as in “Beat Up Guitar,” is worth listening to, and “Beat Up Guitar” is a country blues tune remembering a Texas bluesman in a poor part of town, a pleasing, touching, piece. Copeland’s sharp, strong voice is softer than usual and huskier, with an aspect of melancholia, in “Love Scene,” which has something of a country beat, as Copeland sings about being “ready for my love scene—give you all the love I can” and states “I’m looking for a leading man.”
It is bizarre to listen to very good music, whether blues, jazz, classical, folk, country, or rock, and realize that you have not heard it on radio or television; and yet it is a perception that musicians as well as music lovers have more and more. Musicians are likely to have that perception with greater anxiety and anger, but Copeland plays the part of an interested listener in “Who Stole My Radio?” It is a lover’s lament. “I want to be rocked from the floor to the ceiling” and “I need some music to help me through the night” Shemekia Copeland sings, among the jazzy horns and rollicking but not reckless rhythm-and-blues of “Who Stole My Radio?” She wants to know, “Who stole the funk? Who stole the soul? Who took the rock out of rock-and-roll?”—in other words, she wants to know why radio programming is predictable and dull: “same ten songs every night and day.”
The maternal and the mischievous are blended in the seductively sultry voice of the jazzy “Stay A Little Longer, Santa.” The tone changes in the uptempo “All About You,” which skewers narcissism, with “You’re so happy being in love with yourself” and “I could never love you half as much as you do.” I do not particularly like it (the song could show more humor in Copeland’s tone, a matter of inflection; a true sense of the absurd), but it is hard to resist its force, evidence of a power that cannot be denied. In “Salt in My Wounds,” a song that announces itself, “one last slow blues to close the show,” a woman sees a former lover with a new woman, not understanding the cruelty of the public display; and in it there is a dramatic urgency that does not have the high tone of opera, but shares the same extremity of feeling and has its own poetic eloquence. The last song of Shemekia Copeland’s Deluxe Edition, “Your Mama’s Talking,” is a raucous request for more love and the resolution of difficulties in a relationship. Shemekia Copeland is not Etta James, Tina Turner, or any other singer: she is herself. On the evidence of Deluxe Edition, Shemekia Copeland is likely to be recognized now and in the future not only as one of the great blues singers, but as one of the great American singers.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett, who likes jazz, independent rock, and world music, originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth. Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com