Johnny Copeland - Biography
By J Poet
It took Texas blues guitarist Johnny Copeland a long time to gain recognition, but after a lifetime of near misses he finally scored a Grammy with one of his first albums, Showdown! (1985 Alligator), a collaboration with Robert Cray and Albert Collins. He was one of the first bluesmen to investigate the connections between African and American music. The result was Bringing It All Back Home (1986 Rounder) recorded in Ivory Coast with African musicians who later went on tour with him. In the 80s, Copland began suffering chest pains and was diagnosed with heart disease. A heart transplant in 1997 led to complications and Copeland died in the hospital.
Copeland was born in 1937 and after moving around the south with his mother, the family settled in Houston, Texas. His parents separated when he was a child, but on his father’s death he inherited his electric guitar, which became his constant companion. Neighborhood musicians in Houston’s Ninth Ward included Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Lowell Fulson, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and T-Bone Walker. Noting that they all had individual styles, Copeland decided to avoid imitating anyone and forged his own individual approach to the instrument. Joe “Guitar” Hughes recruited Copeland for a vocal group he was forming The Dukes of Rhythm, but they soon added instruments with Hughes on lead guitar, Herbert Henderson on Rhythm guitar and Copeland on drums. It was soon evident that Copeland was a better guitarist than drummer. Henderson moved to drums and Copeland and Hughes were soon getting noticed for their double lead guitar duels. They were a big draw at local clubs when Duke/Peacock head Don Robey caught their act. He didn’t sign them, but he did give a song Copeland wrote “Further Up the Road” to Bobby “Blue” Bland who made it a hit in 1958. Copeland never saw a penny for the tune.
In 1958 he made a single for Mercury with pianist Teddy Richards “Rock and Roll Lilly.” It was a regional hot but never crossed over to national success. Copeland cut more singles for dozens of small labels without much success, save “Down on Bending Knee” for Golden Eagle in 1962. It’s still a regional favorite to this day. For the next 20 years he played with soul, R&B and disco artists and made singles that went nowhere. In 1975 he moved to Harlem, New York. He played clubs and house parties at night and worked various day jobs until he met producers Dan Doyle and Ken Vangel who got him signed to Rounder Records as a blues/soul player. His first album, Copeland Special (1981 Rounder) was a blues hit and introduced him to a mainstream audience seduced by its winning combination of horn driven soul and Texas blues. It won a WC Handy award for Best Blues Album of 1981 beating out Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Copeland became a headliner in the US and tour Europe with great success. He followed up his sizzling debut with: Make My Home Where I Hang My Hat (1982 Rounder), Bringing It All back Home (1986 Rounder) a beautiful hybrid of American blues and African roots music, and Boom Boom (1990 Rounder.) In the wake of his Rounder albums, the small collector’s label Mr. R&B released Down on Bending Knee (1985) and I’ll Be Around (1985) collections of his early singles. He also cut the one off Showdown! (1985 Alligator), a collaboration with Robert Cray and Albert Collins that went on to win a Best Traditional Blues Recording Grammy. It later became one of The Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame recordings.