By Matthew Jorn
Johnny Copeland was born in Haynesville Louisiana on March 27th, 1937. His parents separated when he was six months old and he and his mother moved to Magnolia, Arkansas. The boy was 12 when his father died, and though he had little personal impact on his life Johnny was given his dad's guitar. Less than a year later, he moved with his family to his adopted hometown of Houston, Texas.
A number of Houston's Third Ward acts had a tremendous amount of influence on young Copeland including Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Lowell Fulson, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and especially T-Bone Walker. While playing there Copeland made fast friends with Joe "Guitar" Hughes. Together they formed The Dukes of Rhythm, which began as a vocal group and eventually added instruments into its repertoire.
It was Hughes that had the greatest hand in teaching Copeland the guitar. Although he was a little bit younger Hughes became a mentor to Copeland and they would frequently challenge one another onstage, which added greatly to their band's performance and reputation. From the late '50s and on through the '60s, Copeland performed and began recording albums under numerous small labels, eventually recording "Down on Bended Knees" in 1962, which is considered one of the great Texas Blues classics.
The '60s brought about a big shift in widespread musical preference and Copeland found himself backing up R&B and Funk musicians like Otis Redding and Eddie Floyd. He continued recording in spite of this, with labels like Atlantic and Kent into the '70s. In 1975 Copeland took his friend Robert Turner's advice and moved to Harlem, New York. The venues there were enough to keep him busy until 1981 when he received a record deal with Rounder Records and released "Copeland Special" which earned him a W.C. Handy Award that same year.
In 1985 Copeland worked with Robert Cray and Albert Collins to produce "Showdown!" under Alligator Records to great critical acclaim. The three men received a Grammy Award and a Handy for the album and were later inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame. His fame earned him as spot on the 10-country tour of West Africa which was sponsored by the State Department. There he gained an appreciation for African music. He returned from the Ivory Coast to record "Bringing It All Back Home" which melded African rhythms with American Blues.
Into the late '80s Copeland began experiencing health issues of increasing seriousness, having several heart attacks and undergoing open heart surgery eight times. His heart began failing more and more frequently. He eventually required assistive devices for his left and right ventricles and survived on the devices for twenty months (one of the longest periods of time to use the device on record) while still performing onstage. He received a donor heart on January 1st, 1997. Complications arose only a few months after the surgery and he died on July 3rd, 1997 at the age of 60 years old.
This article is part of a series of educational biographies of great Texas music legends written by Matthew Jorn and presented by Russell and Smith Houston Ford Dealerships. Texas has always been a hotbed of musical talent, and Russell and Smith Houston Ford dealers is proud to share this story of authentic Texas musical talent.
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