The streets of Harlem provided the soundtrack for the adolescent and teenage life of Shemekia Copeland, whose early learning experiences ran the gamut from gospel meltdowns to boom-box anthems to horn duos in subway stations to impromptu jams at neighborhood parks.
Copeland, 19, daughter of late guitar legend Johnny Clyde Copeland, heard her dad's Texas blues at home, where she also tuned into recordings by Otis Redding, O.V. Wright, Sam Moore, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Mahalia Jackson and Patsy Cline.
And for one reason or another, she never quite connected with rap, contemporary R&B or dance music, the pop styles most favored by her peer group.
"Blues is where it all comes from," Copeland says from her home in Teaneck, N.J. "That's where my heart is. I really can't get into all that other stuff. It does absolutely nothing for me."
Copeland, on tour in support of "Turn the Heat Up," her appropriately titled debut album on Alligator, speaks about her chosen genre with the zeal of an evangelist. The singer made her stage debut at the Cotton Club when she was eight, and at 12 did a two-week tour with her father in Spain.
She was all of 15 when the ailing Johnny Copeland -- awaiting a heart transplant -- extended his daughter an invitation to share bills with her father. That's when she experienced her own Damascus-Road conversion.
"It happened during the time when I was traveling with him and opening up shows," Copeland says. "It's kind of strange, because I always knew something was missing in my life, and I didn't know what it was.
"There's a feeling I get when I hear the blues, or I perform it," she adds. "It's amazing. It's unexplainable. Nothing else makes me feel that way."
Copeland's deep-rooted connection to the family trade is intensely felt or her disc, an impressive set of blues, funk and soul originals and standards on which she's backed by a four-piece band and -- on three tracks -- the Uptown Horns.
Michael Hill of the Bronx, a fellow New York blues talent, injects an extra dose of guitar scorch into "I Always Get My Man," while Joe Louis Walker, who befriended the singer when they met at last year's Poconos Festival, delivers some sassy talkback and sweet and stinging six-string on "My Turn Baby."
Monster Mike Welch offers well-placed guitar salvos on "Ghetto Child," an evocative gospel-inflected ballad written by Johnny Copeland.
"Daddy wrote that song in about 1960," she says, "and it seems like here in the '80s and '90s that song did fit me perfectly growing up in Harlem. The moment I heard it, I was like, "Wow, this is so me'."
Copeland's passion is so palpable, and her material so suitable to her powerhouse style of vocals that the singer has regularly collected raves favorably comparing her to such greats as Koko Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Ruth Brown. "I think she will be the next great blues singer," said Bruce Iglauer, an astute judge of talent who first caught the singer onstage at Chicago B.L.U.E.S. in Manhattan.
Others might wilt under the burden of such expectations, or, alternately, allow pride to get in the way of the work at hand. Copeland, whose attitude about her calling is aptly expressed on "Married to the Blues," modestly downplays the praise.
"That's great," she says. "I really appreciate that. I just hope that I can live up to it."
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