The Heart of the Matter

With his stinging guitar lines, booming chord sustains, and passionate vocals, Johnny "Clyde" Copeland has spent the past four decades cutting to the heart of the blues. Recently, though, doctors have been cutting to the heart of Copeland. Since a near-fatal series of heart problems in early 1995, Copeland has waged a fierce battle against heart disease. He has gone under the knife for open-heart surgery -- not once, not twice, but six times. Along the way, doctors implanted a LVAD (left ventricular assist device) in his abdomen, then temporarily supplemented it with one for the right. And finally, when all else failed, Copeland received a transplanted heart on New Year's Day this year. Many men have had staring contests with the Grim Reaper. It's a rare man who makes the Reaper blink.

Since modern medicine helped him back from the brink of death, Copeland, age 60, has wasted no time returning to the stage. Within months of his transplant, the New York resident was performing at local venues. Now he's ranging a little farther from home. Copeland was in Memphis in May for the W.C. Handy Awards, where he was the surprise star of a lineup that also included James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, and R.L. Burnside. He's making an even bigger trip on the Fourth of July, to Delray Beach, then on to Key West. "I'm not going full force," he says during a recent phone conversation, "but I can still play."

As any student of modern blues knows, that's the understatement of the year.
Copeland was born in 1937 on a farm near Haynesville, Louisiana, spent his earliest years in nearby Arkansas, and then moved with his family to Houston after World War II. In southeast Texas he started professing the blues at age thirteen, when his close friend Joe "Guitar" Hughes gave him lessons on a weather-beaten old acoustic model that had once belonged to Copeland's father. From the first, Copeland fell under the sonic spell of T-Bone Walker, whose patented shuffle rhythms mixed jazz and blues and pioneered modern blues guitar. Even today Copeland speaks of Walker in reverent tones: "I liked T-Bone as a person and for what he gave the blues. He was the man who made me interested in blues." Lest anyone take him for a mere imitator, Copeland pauses a nanosecond, then adds, "I never really copied T-Bone's style, though."

The mid-Fifties found Copeland employed by bandleader Clarence Samuels. Together they traveled the so-called chitlin circuit, playing speakeasies in West Texas, along the Gulf Coast, and as far north as Tennessee. Copeland also backed up Big Mama Thornton, Janis Joplin's blues-shouting foremother; worked in a group fronted by fellow six-stringer Albert Collins; and even did some time as a boxer. In 1958, he hooked up with a tiny Texas record company to issue his first 45, "Rock 'n' Roll Lily," which hit big on regional radio. He was entrenched as a blues institution in the Houston area for the next sixteen years, keeping busy in black clubs and releasing a string of records, including the raw, urgent, early-Sixties hit "Down on Bended Knee."

In 1975, with disco putting the squeeze on blues, Copeland decided to quit the Lone Star State. "Most everyone I knew had went to California," he recalls. "Johnny 'Guitar' Watson had been out there already ten or twelve years and hadn't really sparked up nothin'. So, I'm saying, 'Maybe I'll try the East Coast. New York is the musical capital, you know, and maybe that'll do me some good.'" It didn't, at least at first. New York, like the rest of the country, was lukewarm to blues players; black audiences in particular had turned their backs on the genre. Copeland made ends meet by working at a burger restaurant. But Copeland's undiminished passion for the blues and his new enthusiasm for the city ("I just fell in love with New York") slowly began to pay dividends.

His upper-Manhattan performances attracted the attention of young white blues fans, and he toured throughout the northeast, picking up shows in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. In 1979 Rounder Records, the mighty indie label run by three ex-hippies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, signed him up. Copeland Special, released in 1981, was special indeed -- it was both a commercial and a critical success. His suspenseful vocals and taut playing were framed by a jazz horn section that included notables Arthur Blythe and Byard Lancaster. The successful marriage of blues and jazz installed Copeland in the pantheon of great crossover artists that included Walker, Ray Charles, and Bobby "Blue" Bland.

Copeland kept up his winning streak throughout the Eighties, bringing immediacy and intensity to album after album, concert after concert. And along the way, he added the third major ingredient to his blues stew -- African music. After tours of Africa in 1982 and 1984, Copeland his upon the idea of integrating the continent's music into his recording. The 1986 LP Bringin' It All Back Home, which fused blues and African folk music, was cut in an Ivory Coast recording studio slightly before Paul Simon became the critics' darling with Graceland. The same year, Copeland enjoyed a stateside breakthrough when Showdown!, a searing Rounder collaboration with Albert Collins and young gun Robert Cray, grabbed a Grammy. And the good news just kept on coming: Copeland received an award from the French National Academy of Jazz, appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and moved from Rounder to Verve after 1990's half-baked Boom Boom. The Verve records have allowed Copeland to explore his interest in jazz and world music. Jungle Swing, released in 1996, is rooted in the blues but is unafraid to maintain a dialogue with jazz and African music.

But the music was the only thing keeping a steady beat. As Copeland toured and recorded, his heart was getting worse and worse. Just two months after he finished recording Jungle Swing in early 1995, he had a minor heart attack, after a concert in Denver. By May his heart was effectively useless, and doctors implanted the LVAD and began the long series of operations that culminated in this past January's transplant. All along the way, the New York blues community rallied to Copeland's aid, helping to pay bills not covered by his medical insurance with frequent benefits at the blues club Manny's Car Wash.

These days, Copeland is reticent about discussing his health. Sure, he's relieved that his new ticker is so far "a perfect match," and he'll drop a casual comment now and again about the steady diet of immunosuppressants and the weekly visits to the hospital. But his attitude toward the ordeal can best be expressed by a typically laconic Copeland quote: "I'm feelin' awright." Copeland would rather talk about what he expects to play when he takes the stage in South Florida: "I'll kind of mix it up off my last three albums: Jungle Swing, Catch Up with the Blues, and Flyin' High." If those albums are any indication, concertgoers can expect a bit of Memphis blues, a bit of New Orleans blues, a bit of Kansas City jazz, some African polyrhythms, and a whole lot of heart.

At press time, New Times learned that Johnny "Clyde" Copeland has been hospitalized again. The shows planned for the Musicians Exchange on July 4 and the Key West Beer and Blues Fest on July 5 have been cancelled.