Coping with the Blues

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!"

Copeland's latest disc, Flyin' High, released last summer on the Verve/Gitanes label, also pays tribute to his deep Texas roots. A horn-driven T-Bone shuffle, the title track illustrates a prime example of Texas-swing blues the way Mr. Walker and Big Joe Turner used to do 'em. "San Antone" and "Cornball" invite you to raveup roadhouse sax parties with David Fathead Newman squonking tenor. "Jambalaya" mines laidback grooves and features Dr. John's distinctive, tinkling bordello piano. Guests such as Buckwheat Zydeco, who adds bouncy accordion riffs on the catchy "Love Song," and alto player Hank Crawford, who provides brassy articulation to the uplifting instrumental "Around the World," keep the party lively as does solid backing throughout by the Uptown Horns.

"I've always been close to the saxophone," Copeland says. "I talked to Grover Washington. I might get Grover [for a future project], too. Everybody want to play some blues now. Everybody started out playing the blues," he says of his colleagues in the jazz world, "then they went to the music they would choose to try to make their living with."

But Copeland has stretched beyond the blues, as well, recording with African musicians on the vaunted Bringing It All Back Home album, and cutting tunes with avant saxman Archie Shepp ("He play the blues his way. He got a style, even if he's playing the blues"), the fusion group Passport, and pianist Randy Weston. Weston wanted him to play an old Count Basie/Jimmy Rushing song called "Harvard Blues," but "I could never put the 'Harvard Blues' together. So I had to go and do a little research" for the tune that now appears on Weston's Volcano Blues.

For Flyin' High, however, Copeland didn't have to do any research: All the tunes are originals, except Hank Williams's "Jambalaya." And he knew that one pretty damn well. "Well, I tell you, I have a great love for Hank Williams," says the bluesman. "He's one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived." Of course Copeland's no slouch with a pen in his hand either, whether writing about getting spurned and burned and vowing never to do it again ("Promised Myself"), or affirming man's place (and his own) in the scheme of things ("Greater Man"): "There ain't nothin' greater than a man," he sings, "than a greater man." "I try to write all kinds of songs. Sometimes they kind of mean something. Like I think 'Greater Man' is one of my best songs," he says. "These kind of songs you hold onto, you don't really record them for a long time." Another is a concert favorite, the heartfelt "Life's Rainbow," which Johnny Clyde usually uses as a cathartic closer to his raucous road show. It'll be on his next record, due in May, he promises.

And although Copeland's records are often brilliant, there's no substitute for seeing this powerhouse performer in person. The sweat-drenched yet always dapper Texan's guitar ranges from party-hearty to heartbreaking, his vocals roaring like some hellbound, fully stoked locomotive furnace. "I try to work my guitar and voice together, that's the biggest problem," he confides. "I don't like to do too much guitar. I like to do enough, you know." And like his earliest days, Johnny Clyde doesn't sound like anybody but Johnny Clyde. "When you're playing, what you don't realize is, you have your own style. If you focus on somebody else while you're doing your thing, you won't recognize yourself, you'll only recognize them. You know your own style so you have to just do your thing and don't have nobody else in mind."

Johnny Clyde Copeland performs tonight (Thursday) at Hooligan's Pub & Cabaret, 13135 SW 89th Pl, 252-9155 at 9:00; tickets are $15; and Saturday night at the Musicians Exchange, 8:30 and 11:00, 729 W Sunrise Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 764-1912; tickets are $10.