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Shemekia Copeland brings star power to Bradenton Blues Festival: interview

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Shemekia_Photo by Sandrine Lee_Horizontal_1

Grammy-nominated singer Shemekia Copeland is the headliner of Saturday’s second annual Bradenton Blues Festival along the Manatee River. Courtesy photo by Sandrine Lee.

Shemekia Copeland, headliner of Saturday’s second annual Bradenton Blues Festival along the Manatee River, has been crowned Queen of the Blues. The Chicago-based singer’s long list of accolades also includes performing at the White House, a pair of Grammy Award nominations and, just a few months ago, induction into the New York Blues Hall of Fame. These are honors performers usually receive when they reach their twilight years. Copeland, though, is only 34 years old, a baby in the blues world, and in the prime of her career. But the singer just lets out a warm laugh when asked if she finds all these awards and recognitions a bit strange at such a young age.

“Shoot! I’m just happy to get any, ol’ honor,” she says by phone in between naps during a day off in Las Vegas. “I just take it all in and remain grateful and appreciative of it all.”

Copeland first gained national recognition when her second album, the 2000 release “Wicked,” received a Grammy Award nomination. She spent the following decade elating audiences at blues festivals and clubs nationwide while making critically acclaimed albums produced by the likes of New Orleans icon Dr. John and famed Stax guitarist Steve Cropper.

Shemekia Copeland Koko Taylor funeral AP

Singer Shemekia Copeland, delivers as hundreds listen on the nearly packed main floor of Operation PUSH Headquarters in Chicago during the funeral of Koko Taylor, Queen of the Blues, Friday, June 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Eric Y. Exit)

In 2009, Copeland lost her mentor, “Queen of the Blues” Koko Taylor and sang at her funeral. Two years later, at the Chicago Blues Festival, Copeland was presented Koko Taylor’s crown, and officially given the honor as new “Queen of the Blues” by Taylor’s daughter, Cookie Taylor.

“I just felt so honored, for her and the city of Chicago to feel I would be the one to carry on the tradition of the music,” Copeland says. “I miss Koko every day, she was always kind to me and made sure I was all right. I love her for that so much. It was an honor, of course, but as far as I’m concerned, Koko Taylor is always ‘Queen of the Blues.’”

Last year, Copeland received another honor of a lifetime. She performed for President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama during the White House Music Series saluting blues music in recognition of Black History Month. Copeland shared a stage with Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, Gary Clark, Jr., B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Warren Haynes, Susan Tedeschi and Keb Mo. During a student workshop celebrating blues music held the same day, Copeland got to spend some quality time with the First Lady. Of course, she also got to meet President Obama.

“It was one of the most awesome experiences of my life,” Copeland says. “It’s something I’ll be talking about forever.”

Shemekia Copeland Grammys AP 2013

Shemekia Copeland arrives at the 55th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Something Buddy Guy said, though, is what really struck home for Copeland. Her husband, Orlando Wright, is the bass player in Buddy Guy’s band and the three are close friends. Born in Lettsworth, La., in 1936, Guy worked alongside his parents as a sharecropper before moving to Chicago to become a blues star in the 1950s. Just before Copeland went in to have her picture taken with the President and the First Lady she heard Guy whisper from behind her.

“From the cotton fields to the White House,” Copeland recalls Guy saying.

She adds, “And a tear ran down my face.”

Copeland’s latest release “33 1/3” - the titled is a nod to her age at the time of its recording and her love of vinyl records – was nominated for a Grammy Award this year for Best Blues Album. It’s an exciting, eclectic collection of blues and soul that also includes the Bob Dylan country chestnut “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and the Lucinda Williams rocker “Can’t Let Go” (penned by Randy Weeks). Although her old producer and pal Dr. John won the award, Copeland had a great time and appreciated the experience more than when she went to the Grammy Awards the first time more than a decade ago.

“I was such a kid at that time, I couldn’t believe I was being nominated at all, but this time I felt I made the best blues album of the year whether it got nominated or won because I put so much into it,” Copeland says. “Every single song has a meaning and a purpose and I felt really good and so proud to be honored. I felt like a winner no matter what.”

BRADENTON BLUES FESTIVAL
Bradenton Blues Weekend events, festival schedule and map
10 a.m. (gates), 6:20-7:35 p.m. (Shemekia Copeland performs), Saturday; Bradenton Riverwalk, 425 Third Ave. W., Bradenton; $30 in advance, $40 at the gate, $25 per person for groups of 10 or more, $20 for students, $10 for children ages 5-12, children age 4 and younger will be admitted free; 681-0708; bradentonbluesfestival.org.

BRADENTON BLUES FESTIVAL
Bradenton Blues Weekend events, festival schedule and map
10 a.m. (gates), 6:20-7:35 p.m. (Shemekia Copeland performs), Saturday; Bradenton Riverwalk, 425 Third Ave. W., Bradenton; $30 in advance, $40 at the gate, $25 per person for groups of 10 or more, $20 for students, $10 for children ages 5-12, children age 4 and younger will be admitted free; 681-0708; bradentonbluesfestival.org.

Wade_Tatangelo_by_Mike_Lang_HT_06212013 Wade Tatangelo has been an entertainment reporter, columnist and reviewer for more than a decade at publications nationwide. He is a Hershey, Pa., native who grew up in Tampa and graduated from the University of South Florida. Wade joined the Herald-Tribune in 2013. He can be reached by email or call (941) 361-4955.
Last modified: December 8, 2013
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