by Len Lear
A powerhouse blues artist, reminiscent of legends like Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday, will be performing on Thursday, April 6, 7 p.m., in the Upper School Auditorium at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH)
Beginning her career as a child touring with her father, legendary blues player Johnny Copeland, Shemekia Copeland has emerged as one of the best female blues singers of the millennium.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, “Shemekia’s a ball-of-fire vocalist with a voice that’s part Memphis, part Chicago and all woman … devastatingly powerful. She’s a great singer, period.” One music website, mademan.com, actually named Shemekia the second best female blues singer of all time! (Deborah Coleman was number one, and Etta James, Bonnie Raitt and Bessie Smith were 3, 4 and 5, respectively.)
Shemekia, 37, was born in Harlem, New York, where her bluesman father recognized his daughter’s talent early on. He encouraged her to sing at home and even brought her on stage to sing at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club when she was just 8.
We conducted the following interview last week with Shemekia:
How did you feel when you were singing at the Cotton Club at age 8?
“I was petrified!”
How much did your dad influence your career?
“Enormously. He’s with me every time I step on the stage … I’m a lifer, singing about things that bother me, using my music to help people. My dad always said ‘we’re all connected.’ I’m an old soul marching to the beat of my own drum.” (Ed. Note: Johnny Copeland, who was named Blues Entertainer of the Year by the Blues Foundation in 1983, died in 1997 at the age of 60.)
Of all your awards, which one means the most to you and why?
“Three Grammy nominations. Grammys are recognized as the most important awards in music. Still gotta win one!”
Of all the great musicians you have performed with, which ones were your favorites?
“Koko Taylor and Ruth Brown were both so generous with their time, advice and sharing their experiences. Though sharing a stage with Mick Jagger was also very cool.”
What is the ultimate goal in your career?
“Keeping the blues alive and relevant for future generations.”
What is your favorite city of all those you’ve played in?
“Too many great places to pick one. Paris. London. Mumbai. Sao Paolo. All wonderful. Not to mention so many great places here in the U.S.”
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
“Being with my newborn baby, Johnny Lee. Born Christmas Eve.”
If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
“I’ve got the best job in the world because it doesn’t feel like a job.”
Which person in the world would you most like to meet and spend an hour with?
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
“Playing the White House for President and Mrs. Obama.”
Who are your heroes in real life, living and/or dead?
“All the blues women who came before me and had it so rough.”
Where do you live when you are not touring?
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
What is your biggest pet peeve?
“Being asked to wait around doing nothing.”
What is your favorite song?
“Anything by O. V. Wright or Sam Cooke.”
The April 6 concert is underwritten by the Jamie Bell ’78 Music Fund, an endowed fund at SCH Academy. The fund was started and supported by the family and friends of Jamie Bell, an alumnus of CHA, who died in 2014. He was a beloved, well-known Philadelphia blues guitarist and vocalist.
Inspired by his musical passions and those of his parents, George and Bertie Bell, The Jamie Bell ’78 Music Fund supports curriculum that focuses on “an understanding of the blues and fosters a lifetime appreciation of musical genres that are derivatives of the blues: jazz, rock and roll, gospel and country music. This concert is a tribute to Jamie, an inspiration for students at SCH and a celebration of the blues, jazz and more.”
“We are thrilled to bring such an internationally acclaimed artist to campus,” commented Dr. Ellen Fishman-Johnson, Chair of the Arts at SCH. Ms. Copeland is slated to offer master classes with students during the school day April 6 in addition to the evening concert.
Tickets to the concert can be purchased at www.sch.org/blues
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org