One thing that can be said for Johnny “Clyde” Copeland — he had a lot of heart. Even despite the personal challenges his actual heart had given him over the last decade of his life, he never wavered and remained true to his craft. And, when mechanical devices needed to be installed into his body and finally his own organ needed to be replaced, Johnny kept his courage and det
ermination, performing at 100% right up to the end of his life.
Johnny Copeland was a Texas Bluesman. He never failed to let this fact be known. Though his residence changed from Houston to New York City and eventually to New Jersey, his soul lived on with a steady Texas beat.
His life began on March 27, 1937, in Haynesville, Louisiana. His parents separated when he was six months old and he moved with his mother to Magnolia, Arkansas. At the age of 12, Johnny’s father died. He did not have much contact with his father, but with his passing, Johnny was given his guitar. Within a year, the Copeland family was on the move again, relocating to the city that Johnny would consider his real home for life: Houston, Texas.
Growing up in Houston’s Third Ward allowed the teenager to be exposed to a vast array of the best Blues guitarists of the day. Johnny’s personal interest was aimed at people like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Lowell Fulson, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and especially, T-Bone Walker. Enamored of these exceptional musicians, Johnny chose to take note of the individual styles of each, but made the decision early that the music he played would be of his own creation.
One of the people that Johnny met when he first arrived in Houston was a musician who would be a partner in the early years and a friend for life, Joe “Guitar” Hughes. Together they formed a group they named The Dukes of Rhythm. It was a vocal group to begin with, but they soon added instruments to the mix. Hughes was the band’s lead guitarist, Herbert Henderson took on the second guitar and Johnny sat behind the drums. It didn’t take too long, however, to discover that Herbert was a better timekeeper than Johnny and the two switched instruments.
Copeland was always the first person to point out that Joe Hughes was responsible for teaching him to play the guitar. Though he was actually a few months younger than Johnny, he took on a mentor role as an instructor. Johnny was a quick learner, though. Soon the two guitarists were challenging one another on stage, which led to the Dukes’ popularity in Houston and found them booked into some of the city’s elite clubs, such as The Eldorado, The Club Matinee and Shady’s Playhouse.
Johnny’s talents had also caught the eye of Duke/Peacock Records boss Don Robey claimed to have co-written the song, in 1957. Though he never personally recorded for the label, Copeland”Further On Up The Road” with his friend Joe Medwick. When Medwick took the song to Robey, he apparently sold its rights without Johnny’s name included and the song was given to Bobby Bland who scored a hit with the number.
In 1958, Johnny did get his chance for fame. Along with local Blues pianist Teddy Reynolds, Copeland recorded his first single. Appearing on the Mercury label, “Rock And Roll Lily” was a regional hit, but failed to catch much attention outside of Houston. Over the next decade, Johnny recorded for a number of small labels. These would include All Boy, Paradise, Suave, Bragg, Wand, Jet Stream, Brown Sugar, Wet Soul and Golden Eagle. It was with Golden Eagle that Johnny found his greatest success in this stage of his career with the single “Down On Bended Knees.” Recorded in 1962, the song has long been considered one of the true Blues classics of Texas.
The ’60s music scene in Texas was drifting away from the Blues, though. Johnny found himself working often on tours with R&B and Soul artists such as Otis Redding and Eddie Floyd. But he continued to record, working with such labels as Atlantic and Kent into the ’70s. The Blues in Houston was not gaining any rise in popularity by this time and Johnny decided to relocate to New York City in 1975, settling in Harlem at the suggestion of his friend Robert Turner, who assured him there were enough music venues to keep him busy.
Johnny received a recording deal with Rounder Records in 1981 and released his debut for the label that same year. “Copeland Special” was a classic and earned Johnny much attention, including a W.C. Handy Award. He would go on to release a total of seven albums for that label.
In 1985, Alligator Records teamed Johnny with fellow Texan guitarist Albert Collins and newcomer Robert Cray. The grouping created one of the finest guitar collaborations in the history of recorded Blues with the album, “Showdown!” It was another huge success for Johnny, earning both Handy and Grammy Awards the following year. “Showdown!” has also earned its place in The Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame for Recordings. Copeland had always prided himself in creating his own blend of Blues, be it mixed with the sounds of Jazz or those from another culture altogether. In 1984, he was included in a 10-country tour of Western Africa sponsored by The State Department. Johnny was a hit with the audiences who attended his shows. They had the misconception that Blues was a sad music, based on songs they had heard from Delta performers. But Johnny’s music was upbeat, and he never truly liked to record sad music. They were ecstatic with the liveliness of Copeland’s music and often climbed on stage to dance alongside him as he played.
Johnny was just as fascinated with the African performers that he had met during his visit as well. Enough so that he returned to The Ivory Coast two years later and recorded the album “Bringing It All Back Home,” a splendid mix of African rhythms and American Blues. As the ’80s moved on, Johnny began to suffer with his health. Unknown to him he had not only inherited a guitar from his father, but also heart disease. Over the next few years, he experienced several heart attacks and underwent open-heart surgery eight times. He was placed on medication, but he would not let it slow his pace in performing. His heart problems increased by 1994, and he kept closer to his home, now in Teaneck, New Jersey, where he moved in 1990. Following a performance in Colorado in March, 1995, Johnny suffered yet another heart attack which forced him to spend a week in a Denver hospital. While there, his actual condition was discovered to be worse than he ever knew.
On May 5, 1995, a new medical device was installed which was connected to his left ventricle and ran off batteries from a strap on his shoulder. The device was called a Left Ventricular Assist Device (L-VAD). Only two hours following the placement of the L-VAD, Johnny’s condition worsened with his blood pressure becoming almost nonexistent and his body began to shut down as he slipped into a short coma. An R-VAD (Right Ventricular Assist Device) also had to be inserted, but eventually he began to stabilize and it was removed. The L-VAD was an experimental device, though, and Johnny was placed onto a waiting list to receive a heart transplant. The prognosis for survival was grim.
True to his nature, Johnny refused to stay away from the stage and began performing again. Due to the nature of his surgery, he found himself somewhat of a celebrity for his outgoingness. He was featured on several media broadcasts worldwide, including CNN and “Good Morning America.”
In 1992, Johnny had signed a new record contract with the Verve label. He released three albums with them, including his final recording “Jungle Swing,” once again incorporating the sounds of African music.
Johnny lived for 20 months on the L-VAD, a medical achievement, being one of the longest survivors on record for the device while he awaited a new heart. His manager, Holly Bullamore, was quoted as saying that the wait was so long because, “They can’t find a heart big enough for him.” A heart was found eventually and Johnny Copeland underwent transplant surgery on January 1, 1997.
Just a short four months later, he was back on stage, appearing in a comeback show staged at Manny’s Car Wash in New York. The following month he took the Blues world by storm and staged a spectacular set at the W.C. Handy Awards in Memphis. But the comeback was short-lived, and he was back at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York the last week of June. The donor heart was leaking and he underwent surgery to repair the damage. Complications arose, though, and Johnny Copeland died a week afterwards on July 3, 1997, at the age of 60.
A wake was held on July 7th in New York at the Benta Funeral Home. Johnny was then returned to his beloved Houston for services at the St. Agnes Church and burial in the Paradise Cemetery South. His trademark guitar strap, with the name “Texas” proudly proclaimed, was placed across his chest as he was laid to rest.
Johnny Copeland loved the Blues and considered it the staple of Texas music. He wanted the tradition to carry on, so during the last years of his life he encouraged his daughter, Shemekia, to perform with him, beginning when she was only 12 years old. By the end of his life, Shemekia was a regular feature and always opened the shows for him. Shemekia paid tribute to her father on her debut recording, “Turn The Heat Up,” by including a heart-wrenching rendition of his composition “Ghetto Child.”
Johnny Copeland was a consummate performer who never failed to give his audiences everything he could with all of his heart. Even if his heart had been stronger, he couldn’t have given his fans any more. Johnny Copeland was the sound of Texas and fits in squarely with the other Blues guitarists who kept the music alive throughout the ’80s and ’90s, alongside Albert Collins, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. A Bluesman for the eternities.
Reprinted from the artist’s website www.johnnycopeland.com