Coping with the Blues

From the Third Ward to the Third World, Johnny Clyde Copeland lives a continuing blues adventure

Do these things really happen? Johnny Clyde swears it's true. He was about fifteen, gawking at an electric guitar in the window of a music shop in Houston's Third Ward district, when a man approached him and asked if he had a band. Turns out the guy owned a local nightclub.

"He told me to bring my band by there that night," Copeland remembers. "I said 'We ain't got nothin' but acoustics.' So he said, 'Well, come by with that.' So I went and found Joe [Hughes, who still plays guitar with Copeland] and all the guys A we was the Five Dukes then. We went over to the club that night, and man, the people loved us. The next day, he [the club owner] went and bought all that equipment for us."

Like Lightnin' Hopkins, one of his early heroes, the Texas Twister (a moniker Copeland earned as much for his whirlwind output in the late Fifties as for his somebody-done-scraped-my-vocal-cords-on-the-pavement singing style) spins a yarn in a relaxed Lone Star drawl. Although a long way from his hometown -- Copeland moved to New York in 1979 -- the blues guitarist-singer-songwriter recalls his roots vividly.

Who wouldn't? Houston in the early Fifties: T-Bone Walker and Clarence Gatemouth Brown were playing locally; soon-to-be guitar greats Albert Collins and Johnny Guitar Watson were young hotshots; and Lightnin', well, on a nice day you might catch him picking a tune with his cronies under a shade tree on McGregor Street. Teenage Johnny Clyde was soaking it all up.

With all these influences in his head and new equipment at his fingertips, Copeland and his band started making a name for themselves, touring the little cities and towns around the area. "Finally, a guy come talk to us from Galveston that had a club and wanted us to come down there. And us being so young, he had to go and make an arrangement with everybody's family to let us go down there. It was like being in army camp, man. He was responsible for us. He wouldn't let us do nothin' but work."

And forget about exploring the clubs of the big city. "There weren't no clubs but the ones we was playing in. You know, we'd go there in the morning, clean the club up. Then when we'd get through cleaning, we'd rehearse the rest of the day and go home that evening about say, 5:30, and get ready to come back for the show at 8:00. We'd get back and we'd have a full house of people, but we had to go straight to the bandstand and stay on the bandstand. When we'd take a break we had to stay on the bandstand. Man, we could never get off the bandstand!"

It wasn't long after returning from his three-year stint in Galveston that Johnny Clyde landed a gig at Shady's Playhouse, back in the Third Ward, with pal Johnny G. Watson. It was Shady's that was to give him both invaluable experience and notoriety. "I got to play with a lot of guys -- Jimmy Reed used to come in there, Amos Milburn, Big Mama Thornton, everybody that came through town would go there." Of course, Copeland still had to hustle, playing the infamous Santa Fe circuit with Big Mama T., Sonny Boy Williamson, and Freddie King, but at least he didn't have to sweep up the clubs he played any more.

There were still plenty of lean years to come before the recent blues revival, during which Copeland earned his keep boxing (he was 23-0) and even selling used cars. ("I saw some people give their last for some funny shit," he told Greg Baker back in 1988, "It's cold and I couldn't do that.") But Johnny Clyde hung in there, heading north, playing the Harlem club scene, and eventually catching a ride on the reverb Stevie Ray Vaughan created in the early Eighties. A half a dozen excellent LPs were recorded for the Rounder label, a couple with Stevie Ray, in fact, but ultimately it was an Alligator recording that brought him into the national limelight in a big way (at least here in the States and beyond New York; he's always been huge in Europe and was lauded by New York crits since his first Rounder release). With longtime friend Albert Collins and budding bluesman Robert Cray, Copeland laid down some incendiary tracks for the Grammy-winning Showdown! album. The interplay between Copeland and the late Collins A musically as well as personally A highlights the record ("Hey, Albert!" "Yeah, what's happenin', Johnny?" "You bring your harmonica with you?" "Yeah, here it is"). The two also use the showcase to give props back to their mentors, even including Wardmate Hop Wilson's Blackcat Bone. One hero was slated to appear on the album: "Gatemouth was supposed to be on the Showdown! record, you know," says Copeland of the influential picker who was replaced by Cray. "I read somewhere where he said the reason he wasn't on the record is they wouldn't let him produce it. I like to read all his interviews," he cracks up, "His interviews be funny, man!"

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