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Singer Shemekia Copeland Looks Back On 50 Years Of Chicago Blues

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Chicago’s own Alligator Records, the legendary independent label has released a new album called “50 Years of Genuine Houserockin’ Music.”

The album recognizes the voices of many great blues artists that once recorded with the label such as Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, James Cotton and Shemekia Copeland.

For Copeland, growing up listening to blues greats — like Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers — reminds her of her roots, she says. So, it makes sense Hound Dog Taylor and similar artists are her go-to listens.

“These days, it’s what you have to hold on to,” she says. “It’s a part of our history, a part of our culture.”

Copeland says the perfect blend of many artists’ voices and where they come from before finding their sound in Chicago is what makes Chicago blues music true to itself.

“They brought all the goodness from where they came from with them and then made it into their own in Chicago,” Copeland says.

Koko Taylor, the “Queen of the Blues,” is another legend featured on the label’s album and who is well known for her song “I’m a Woman.”

Copeland says Taylor’s voice, personality and stage presence embodied everything a queen should. Speaking to the strength and resilience of growing up as a woman, Taylor adapted “I’m a Woman” from rock musician Bo Diddley.

“It was a whole lot of ‘I’m a Man’ song,” Copeland says. “So [Taylor] said, ‘I’m gonna turn this around.’ And that’s exactly what she did. And it’s just such a great song.”

Taylor has served as Copeland’s biggest inspiration throughout her musical career. Before Taylor died in 2009, Copeland says she had the opportunity to open performances for her and develop a friendship.

Copeland recalls the advice Taylor would often give her when she first began her career.

“She told me ‘You’re going to have some good gigs and some bad gigs. Some good days and some bad days,’ ” Copeland says. “ ‘But you just pick yourself up and keep going and look to the hills.’ That’s what she always told me. Look to the hills. And I knew exactly what it meant.”

Copeland is not only known for her own blues sound but also for being renowned blues artist Johnny Copeland’s daughter. Copeland says she believes her father’s Grammy award-winning album “Showdown!”, released by Alligator Records, is one of the best blues albums ever made.

“To me, my dad was the most incredible artist in the whole world,” Copeland says. “But, you know, I’m biased.”

Memories of being on the road with her late father at an early age remind Copeland of all that she learned from him when it comes to being a blues performer, she says.

“One of my favorite things he always used to say is, ‘When you go on stage, you always give it 100%,’ ” Copeland says. “And I saw him do that — and so I always do that.”

Copeland also relates to Mavis Staples. Although Staples is praised as a gospel and soul singer, Alligator Records features her in its 50th-anniversary collection.

“I always say that I’m a blues singer,” Copeland says. “So, no matter what I sing, no matter what genre it is, it sounds like blues. And she’s a gospel singer. So no matter what she sings, it sounds like gospel to me. And she gives me goose pimples every time I hear her.”

Copeland’s newest album, “Uncivil War,” blends both elements, gospel and blues. She even added three Blues Music Award honors to her impressive awards shelf in June. She says her ninth album release was inspired by the current events of the past year.

“I just hated to see the direction that we were going as a country, all the divisiveness, and it was just heartbreaking to me,” Copeland says. “How long do we have to continue doing the same things … before we realize that we are all Americans and … we should we shouldn’t hate on one another?”

Alligator Records jumpstarted Copeland’s famed career in 1998, and she says she’s grateful for the open-mindedness the label has always welcomed her with. Without Alligator Records, Copeland may not be the experimental blues artist she is today.

“They just accept whatever I throw at them,” she says. “Banjos and fiddles and just all different styles of music that I’m incorporating into blues — and I appreciate that.”

Lynn Menegon produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Xcaret Nuñez adapted this interview for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shemekia Copeland (Photo by Mike White)
Shemekia Copeland (Photo by Mike White)

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