Hard Hitting Blues: Johnny “Clyde” Copeland

Like many bluesmen — and any boxer — Texas guitarslinger Johnny Copeland got knocked down a lot, but he always fought hard to get back up. “Clyde” was the nickname given to him when he was a young boxer, and it stuck with him in his career as a musician.

There were many challenges for Copeland along the way. He never met his father. He cut dozens of singles — over the course of two decades — with barely a hit among them. When he moved to New York to give his career a boost, his first gig was working the grill at the Brew N’ Burger restaurant. Through it all, Copeland kept playing.

He played modern, electric Texas blues, but like his contemporary and friend Albert Collins, he added more than a little bit of soul to it. His more soulful numbers were the ones I enjoyed the most. Many of them showed the influence of singers such as Otis Redding and Eddie Floyd, with whom he toured in the ’60s. Two parts Texas and one part Memphis, Copeland’s sound also included African elements, the result of his 1982 tour, arranged by the State Department, to ten African nations.

I first met Copeland at a blues festival in 1994. Like so many young white bluesniks, I, the shaggy, earnest college radio DJ, trepidatiously approached the trailer of the aging bluesman, afraid I would be told to get lost. In fact, Copeland was happy to talk to me. Not only had he heard of my station — he had appeared on it many times. Over the next two years, he was frequently a guest on my program.

Back then, I mostly saw our similarities: we were both New Yorkers and blues lovers, him a musician and me a DJ. Looking back on my relationship with Copeland, it now is easier for me to admit that “Clyde” and I came from very different places — geographically, generationally, racially, and economically. Our differences become particularly evident when I consider Copeland’s boxing career. As a relatively affluent young white man, I have never considered — for one minute– being a boxer, and I probably would not be one even if I was a lot taller and more muscular than I am. A desk job has always been more my style, and the only place I will probably ever box is the health club near my office.

Thinking about it, it does not really surprise me that “Clyde” — growing up African American and poor in segregated Texas — became a boxer and a musician. Opportunities for African Americans in the ’50s and ’60s were limited, to say the least. In the time of Jim Crow, music provided a way out, and in many ways, it still does today. A musical career offered opportunities for expression, mobility, and profit, and boxing provided similar advantages. Both of these careers, which allowed the men who pursued them to break out of the mold and rise above the crowd, stood in stark contrast to the pursuits of most African Americans at the time: working menial, low-wage jobs or spending long days laboring in the fields.

Though boxing was more of an avocation than a profession for Copeland, his devotion to his music paid off. Despite the adversity he faced, he ended up winning a Grammy, recording on a major label, and touring successfully in the United States and overseas.

Johnny “Clyde” Copeland fell ill in 1994. Warm and generous, he was a victim — ironically — of heart failure. As luck would have it, he inherited his heart condition from the father he never met. He went the full ten rounds with his disease, and for a time, it seemed as if he would beat the odds and emerge victorious. He survived longer than any other user of the Left Ventricular Assist Device (L-VAD), a mechanical pump that kept his heart going for months while he waited for a transplant. In 1996, I served as an MC for a successful Copeland benefit concert. Though he was in the audience, he was too sick to perform.

The following year, Copeland succumbed to his disease, a cunning and relentless opponent, after six open-heart surgeries and a heart transplant. In the time between the benefit concert and his death, I had graduated from college and finished my stint as a blues DJ. In many ways, I had shut the door on the chapter of my life that included my time with “Clyde” — so in a way, I felt odd about attending his funeral. I went anyway.

It was strange for me to be in that part of Harlem, to see Copeland among Black folks instead of surrounded by white fans. It was even more peculiar to see him laid out in his coffin, covered in makeup, wearing a suit, and lifeless. I guess I had a hard time believing that such a vibrant, optimistic man — someone who always kept on fighting, struggling, and trying — was being laid to rest.

Copeland lives on through his records, but he also left another legacy. Unlike his father, he devotedly helped raise his child, a daughter named Shemekia. In the last years of his life, she often appeared as his opening act. Today, Shemekia is a Grammy-nominated star in her own right, helping to carry her father’s name into the future of the blues.