Editor’s Note: This is an incredibly special part of “dual articles” about the dynamic Shemekia Copeland and her long time manager and songwriter, John Hahn! You can read Shemekia’s incredible interview with Don Wilcock here.
Shemekia Copeland’s manager explains how he went from being a Maidson Avenue creative hotshot to managing and writing for the new Queen of the Blues. The story begins with how he got involved with Shemekia’s dad, the late blues signer Johnny Copeland.
John Hahn: So I do this campaign for Alka-Seltzer, and they come to me and they say, “We wanna do radio stuff,” and so I said, “You know, you’d be surprised, guys. You can get a high level of musicianship and a built-in cool factor to your campaign so it’ll be talked about more if you use a certain level of musicianship (with someone) who has got some renown, and people will listen to your Alka-Seltzer commercial and say, “Jesus, was that Levon Helm singing for Alka-Seltzer?” You can’t afford Beyonce. You can’t afford Mick Jagger, but you can afford Delbert McClinton, and you can afford John Mayall and you can afford Levon.”
So, I talked ’em into that, and so then I said to the production department, I said, “I know music. I’ve written this thing. I want to produce these things. I don’t need a producer.” I said, “If you wanna give me a producer, have the producer do all the business aspects of producing, booking the studio and figuring out the budget and all that stuff, but when it comes to the creative aspects of producing, directing the actual commercial, I wanna do that,”
So I branched this thing out. The Alka-Seltzer campaign I had two with Delbert. I had two rockabilly things with Chris Hillman of the Burrito Brothers and the Byrds. I did Levon Helm. I did Lou Ann Barton down in Austin. I did Son Seals. I did Koko Taylor with Sugar Blue, and that was the start of it, and then whenever I wrote a song at this agency I got to produce it, too, and eventually produced the commercial for Hanover Trust and the jingle house said to me, “You know, this is bluesy. There’s a blues guy who lives up in Harlem. We might be able to get him in. I’ve seen him. He’s won a Grammy.” “Yeah, well let us see if we can get him in.”
And then they got him in, and I said to him, “Thanks for coming in. I’ve seen you. I’m a fan, blah, blah, blah. When’s your next record coming out?” He said, “I don’t have a label,” and so I left – I thought, “Gee, that’s hot – something is going on here.” At the end of the session I said to him, “You know, you don’t know me, and I don’t really know you. I know some people in music,” which was a stretch, “and if you wanna put together a demo, I’ll help you do it, and we can try to get you a label deal,”
Then I went home and the guy who owned the studio where we were doing the commercial said, “You can do it here. You can use my place, and I’ll give it to you for free.” I don’t really feel comfortable with that because I thought, “Now, he’s gonna own my soul for future advertising business, and I said, “You know how you can really help me out is by finding some place where we could really go in inexpensively,” and I said to Johnny, took him out to lunch, and we talked. We talked about everything, and I said, “I’ll put up some money and we’ll do this demo.”
So I got a real inexpensive studio in Brooklyn and started to do this thing, and it sounded great, and I said, “You know what? You put up half the money, and I’ll put up half the money. Let’s forget about selling it now. Let’s just do the whole thing ourselves.” And then he got Buckwheat Zydeco, and I was in a club downtown when they were having a talent contest which, by the way, Guy Davis won. It was when he was just starting out, and one of the judges was Mac Rebennac, and I went up to him at the end of the night and said, “I’m doing an album with Johnny Copeland, and we’d love if you could come in and guest on a couple of song,” and he said, (in accent). “Man, I’d go anyplace anytime to play with Johnny Clyde.” And I said, “Well I’m not bullshitting you. How do I get in contact and all of that stuff?” And then we did.
Gee, I don’t know. The album is called Flyin’ High. It was probably around ’89, ’90, and we got a deal with PolyGram, and that was the start of my relationship with the Copelands.
How was Mac to deal with at that point in time?
Sensational. You know you deal with management, and they’re trying to protect their artist so you say, “Ok, well, you’re paying Mac this much money per cut, but he’s only gonna do one cut,” and then he showed up on his own, didn’t have to send a car for him or any of that bullshit, shows up on his own out in Goddamn Brooklyn and I said, “We’d like you to play “Jambalaya” and I said, “Is that ok with you?” And he says, “I’m here for Johnny. Whatever he wants I’m gonna play. Whatever you want I’m gonna do,” and he ended up doing two cuts, but he would have done more if we’d taken advantage which I didn’t think would be the right thing to do.
Of all the people I’ve worked with in music, I can’t say enough about him because he produced Shemekia’s record, one of Shemekia’s. He’s just the greatest, most generous, coolest, best taste, everything. There’s nobody better than him. So that was it.
Let’s jump forward to the current album 33 1/3 . The thing that I love best about the songs you say you wrote, “”Lemon Pie,” “Somebody Else’s Jesus,” Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo” and “Mississippi Mud” is there seem to be two schools of writing, and they’re becoming more disparate in blues, rather than coming together. One is you’ve got the black experience and sleeping under the hollow log, and then you’ve got the white boys that are trying to imitate that but trying to update it and make it contemporary but relevant to a contemporary audience.
What you’ve done here you’ve done what Leiber and Stoler did with The Coasters, and that is you’ve taken contemporary attitudes, mores, and stories and put them in a context that’s believable for your artists. That’s an incredible talent that you’ve got to do that, and I’m in awe of what you’ve done here, particularly the “Tattoo” song. It’s just awesome. The imagery that you use, the story that you tell and the anger that you put into the song, you really believe that it’s her.
I can remember interviewing Eric Clapton for the Buddy Guy book, and his saying in the forward that he wasn’t able to capture that experience. Leiber and Stoler were able to do it for The Coasters, and you’re able to do it for her. How do you make that jump?
First of all, thanks a million for that, and second of all, you’ve summed up exactly what we aim for. It’s very simple. You start out from the premise that I’m gonna really try not to write about old blues themes of my man left me, ain’t that sad, or I don’t have any money, or we’re all gonna party and all that stuff and think what gives people the blues today. How do I make this music relevant for today? And also how do I do it in a way that makes the artists sound educated and sensitive and real and look it, everybody has – when all these guys say everyone has the blues, sometimes they say it in such a cliché-ed way.
That seems to be a problem with the genre. It’s become a cliché.
Yeah, But I’m trying not to do that, and it’s not a cliché to say these fuckin’ politicians are waving from the gravy train while they’re picking our wallets. That gives me the fuckin’ blues. And, boy, the record company is all over that song in a positive say because they say the election is coming up, Occupy Wall Street just happened. This is like that except it’s said in blues terms with a metaphor of lemon pie, and we’re not talking lemon pie that needs a hell of a lot of sugar in it, and so that’s something we all share. That’s something that black, white, Asians, whoever, we’re going through this in this country, and that type of money issue and being ignored that way is true, and the “Tattoo” is just women get abused, and they can’t be victims, and that’s really relevant today.
How did the imagery of the tattoo come to you? What was the hook? Where did you start?
I started with – this is really funny. It started with “I wanna be your tattoo,” and “I wanna be close to you as I can get.” “I want my skin to be part of your skin,” and the more I looked at it, the less comfortable I felt with it. It was too soft. Tattoo in that sense felt like it had been done a bunch of times. Tattoos themselves were really a popular fad for 15 years, and I think it’s probably diminished. It is, and the tattoo stayed in my head, and then I thought of somebody getting beat up, and you say, “Wow, that guy really beat a tattoo on him,” and I guess I sort of made the leap there between somebody beating a tattoo on you meaning beating you up, and also guys walking around with heart-shaped tattoos with Betty written in the middle of the heart with the arrow through it. So I liked the idea of the tattoo had a love meaning in it and an anger hateful meaning at the same time.
Fascinating. You nailed it.
You’ve often stated that Shemekia has to believe the song and own the song.
How did you sell that to her?
You know, a different question and I don’t have an answer for you is why didn’t she like some other song? Shememia rejects my songs, and she has real strong opinions, and she knows what appeals to her, and I kinda know what appeals to her since I’ve known her for so long, but she still kills material that I do. That particular song she got right away, and in fact her mother – it’s her mother’s favorite song because she’s known so many women who have gone through that.
Shemekia also has done benefits for a rape crisis center in Illinois, and she believes strongly in that stuff, and it was something that hit home. I can tell you when she likes songs and when she doesn’t. Sometimes I have a song that I’m absolutely crazy about, I think it would be great for her and it always starts out with Shemekia saying, “Well, I’ll listen to you. We can try it. Maybe it’ll be good. I’m not that crazy about it,” and then I just know it’s not gonna work. I just drop it. I said to her the other day when somebody complimented me, I said I know that when I write a song for her she’s gotta live with it for the rest of her life. She’s gotta wanna perform it. She’s gotta wanna perform it with passion and up to her standards.
You say Shemekia’s mom really liked the tattoo song. How about the Jesus song? People from her generation in the black community tend to put religion and sacred songs in a different category. Was there any ill at ease on her part about the attitude expressed in that song?
You’re a thousand percent right. I think if I had approached her mom or her aunt with that song from a different generation and from a different spiritual upbringing, that they probably would have suggested that maybe we wouldn’t want to do that, but Shemekia is a spiritual person, and she doesn’t draw back from controversy, and that’s something she believes.
You’ve got her pointing the Bible like a gun. I thought, “right on the money, Jack.”
Yeah, thank you. And also, point that finger at yourself before you throw the first stone, and it’s not about forgiveness anymore. It’s people being holier than thou and anger! They’re angry. I mean anger. You’re not supposed to come out of the church angry. You’re not supposed to feel that you’re morally superior to everybody else. Where’s the – Jesus hanging out with the whores and tax collectors and telling his apostles to leave their families. It’s the exact opposite of everything he taught. So, it sounds like “Somebody else’s Jesus ’cause it don’t sound like mine.” So she totally gets it.
How did you go about getting J. J. Grey to do the “Mississippi Mud” song and whose idea was it?
SC: Well, at one point we had talked about we were discussing producers, and we thought J. J. might be an interesting voice as a producer, and Shemekia and he have a relationship going as far back as a blues festival in Madison, Wisconsin about 10 years ago. So they respect each other. They like each other. They always said they share the stage together when they’re playing on the same festivals so it was just kind of a natural thing.
I covered your Chicago Blues Festival announcing of Queen of the Blues a year ago. I gotta tell ya I know you guys didn’t initiate it, and you might as well go along for the party, but I think trying to carry along a title like that from one generation to another is problematic, and I think when B. B. King goes Buddy Guy isn’t going to grab that mantel as King of The Blues. What’s been the other shoes that fallen since that crowning? How does that look in retrospect looking back at that a year ago?
Well, I’ve got two feelings on that. One is the business response, and that’s that somehow Shemekia has turned a corner in the past year, and I don’t think it was due to the crowning, and I don’t think it was due to the White House or the Apollo with Keith and Clapton, but maybe all those things together and more. Shemekia’s now at a better position than she’s ever been before and by that I mean that where she used to sell 85% of the tickets, now she sells out 100. Where she used to sell 100, she’s playing a better venue, and when we start getting attention for USA Today and some of these other things, and I just see how people are reacting to her, she’s on a different level.
So it might have been the crowning. Businesswise, it might have been a good thing, and everybody loves a compliment. The second way to look at it is kind of on a personal level. Shemekia was really honored. It wasn’t something that she sought. In fact, in an old song we had, “Born A Penny” on the last record, I had written a line in there about, So hold that tiara/ I don’t wanna be queen/Being locked up in some castle never was my dream/That fairy tale you told wasn’t very fair/I’d rather ride the highway with the wind blowing in my hair/Cause I was born a penny/And I ain’t gonna be no dime.
That was what she says and how she says it, and modernizing and evolving the blues, making it relevant for contemporary audiences is what she’s trying to do. Now, let me be perfectly clear. This is me saying this, not her, and in some ways this whole queen thing while we’re grateful for it, personally I find it a little bit antiquated. I don’t know if young audiences respond to something like that, but I’m sure as hell glad she’s got it, and she loves the blues in a traditional was, and she’s gonna live up to it, but if she hadn’t gotten it, we’d be doing the same thing.
You start out from the premise that I’m gonna really try not to write about old blues themes of my man left me, ain’t that sad, or I don’t have any money, or we’re all gonna party and all that stuff and think what gives people the blues today.
It’s not a cliché to say these fuckin’ politicians are waving from the gravy train while they’re picking our wallets. That gives me the fuckin’ blues.
Modernizing and evolving the blues, making it relevant for contemporary audiences is what she’s trying to do.