- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2002

CHICAGO - Shemekia Copeland will tell you she is shy about her voice, so shy that she dislikes leaving messages on telephone answering machines.
OK, but the 23-year-old singer is sending a loud and clear message from the blues world.
Miss Copeland, who is touring to support her third CD on Alligator Records, "Talking to Strangers," already has been nominated for a Grammy Award and won four W.C. Handy Awards, the highest prize in the blues recording industry. Her tour hits Richmond and Hampton, Va., this weekend, and she will perform in the Washington area at the Birchmere in Alexandria and the Ram's Head in Annapolis in December.
"People think I'm hoarse and my voice is gone all the time when they speak with me just in conversation because I have such a quiet voice," she says in an interview in Chicago, where she opened for the Rolling Stones.
Obviously, those people haven't heard her onstage. When it's house lights down, spotlights up and Miss Copeland gets behind the microphone, there's a voice with such authority and authenticity that it belies the age of its owner. She can roar with power, drop her voice into soul overdrive or put it all the way into low gear for a smoky ballad.
That's what attracted Alligator owner Bruce Iglauer when he saw her at 17 in a New York club on the recommendation of a friend.
"I never signed kids to records, but I felt that there was an adult soul in a young body," Mr. Iglauer says. "Had she been 40 and singing that way, I would have signed her anyway."
Mr. Iglauer was so impressed with her demo that he included two songs from that session on her first disc, 1998's "Turn the Heat Up."
"It wasn't 'Boy, is she good at 17,' it was just 'Boy, is she good,'" he says.

Growing up, Miss Copeland was encouraged to sing at home by her father, Texas blues guitar legend Johnny Clyde Copeland. Mr. Copeland, who survived eight heart surgeries but not the ninth, took her to blues shows. As she got older, he brought her onstage. She acknowledges his role in nurturing her as a performer.
She adores him for his role as a father.
"My father was a very big, important part of my life," she says. "I lived in the house with him my whole life growing up. When he was home, home was with me."
Home also was in Harlem, whose violent streets claimed some of her friends; others became mothers too soon.
"Everything was going on right outside, but I had my own special world inside my home that was filled with music and good family and people. I wasn't allowed to hang outside, although I really wanted to," she says.
Miss Copeland's parents were together until her father's death in 1997, and she lives with her mother, Sandra Lynn Copeland, in Lake Harmony, Pa. Her mother was more inclined to let young Shemekia and brother Tory slide. Not so her father, whom she credits with teaching her honesty, responsibility and a strong work ethic.
"He knew this was what he was supposed to be doing and what he [said] he would do, and that, I think, made me just go for what I wanted," Miss Copeland says.

She has a long list of things she wants.
She wants to make a jazz record and act on Broadway and in film; she already has had a cameo appearance in the 1999 movie "Three to Tango."
Shoes are on the list ("I could open my own shoe store right now"), but fame and stardom are not.
In September, Miss Copeland got to check one item off her wish list when she opened for the Stones at a small club in Chicago. "I've been saying it for five years. I never thought it would become a reality, but it did," she says.
The Stones arrived as Miss Copeland was finishing her short set, so she never met them. No matter. "At that point, I just wanted to be at the show, see it and see what everybody's been talking about for 40 years."
Rock 'n' roll has been a big influence on Miss Copeland, and she recognizes it for how it incorporated the blues and expanded the blues audience.
"Thank God for the Stones and the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, because they brought so many people now in their fortysomethings and fiftysomethings back to blues music, because nobody cared until they heard Mick [Jagger] singing it," she says.
Miss Copeland plans to stay true to her blues roots while also celebrating her femininity and independence and incorporating different styles into her repertoire.
"I'm 23 years old, and I'm not singing about picking cotton in a cotton field, you know, my man done left me; I'd rather go blind. I'm not singing about that stuff.
"I'm singing about young, up-tempo things, and it's really my way of bending the blues without breaking it," she says.
Asked about her success, she characteristically looks back to her father.
"I'd say he'd be really, really proud sometimes, and sometimes he'd want to slap me, too," she says, laughing softly.

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