© 2023 WGLT
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Shemekia Copeland: A Humble 'Queen Of The Blues'

Shemekia Copeland
Suzanne Foschino
GLT Summer Concert headliner Shemekia Copeland.

GLT Summer Concert headliner Shemekia Copeland said she was caught off guard when the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois officially declared her to be “The New Queen Of The Blues” at the 2011 Chicago Blues Festival.

“Oh absolutely not, I didn’t know anything,” said Copeland.

She was presented a crown by Cookie Taylor, the daughter of blues legend Koko Taylor, who wore the title until her passing in 2009.

“As far as I’m concerned, Koko Taylor always will be the queen of the blues,” said Copeland. “But I was truly grateful they thought enough of me to think that I could carry on this blues tradition.”

Copeland was no stranger to blues royalty. Her father was the late guitarist Johnny Copeland, a member of the Blues Hall of Fame, and today considered a Texas blues legend. Shemekia said music permeated the house when she was growing up.

“My dad was always sitting around playing guitar, and when he wasn’t, we were listening to music,” said Copeland.

And it wasn’t just blues.

“Oh my god, it was country-western, gospel, soul … we listened to it all … you can’t be from Texas in the 1930s and not be a country music fan. And my father loved world music, so we would listen to a lot of different music from all over the world,” said Copeland, who says her 2-year-old also devours all kinds of music in her home, including classical.

You might think because of that love of music and a father in the business that it was pre-determined she would follow in his footsteps. Copeland said "no," as she was way too leery of the stage through her teens.

“I just could not understand how he could get up in front of all those people and perform, which is hilarious because that’s my favorite part now. He was very encouraging to me in my career. It’s funny—he knew even before I knew that I was going to be a singer. If you would have told me that before, I would have told you that you’re a liar,” laughed Copeland.

Copeland lost her father when he was 50 and she just 18. She said her father had open heart surgery nine times in the few years before he passed.

“And it was during those years that I realized this (music) is what I’m supposed to do,” said Copeland, who traveled with her father during those last few years. She learned a lot.

"I don't care how many people are there, or not there. You always give it 150 percent."

“One of the things I noticed is that you just give it your all when you’re on stage,” said Copeland. “I don’t care how many people are there, or not there. You always give it 150 percent.”

He also instilled the idea of keeping a steady disposition.

“My daddy used to say, ‘Never read the press.’ If it’s good, then you’ll become cocky and arrogant. And if it’s bad, you’ll become bitter and angry. It doesn’t matter what they say, just do what’s in your heart and go with it.”

Possibly her most memorable live performances was in 2012 when she sang for President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. She imagines that if her father would have been there, he would have reacted similar to B.B. King, who also performed. Copeland said King had performed for every president since Gerald Ford.

“B.B. said, ‘This is the greatest experience of my life.’ I would imagine my father would have felt that way,” said Copeland. “We were standing in line waiting to get our pictures taken with the Obamas, and Buddy Guy said, ‘I can’t believe this … from the cotton fields to the White House.' I would imagine it would have been a real surreal, amazing feeling for my father.”

She again laughed when asked how the White House performance was a unique performing experience.

“It’s awesome and nerve racking … it was insane. I think all of us felt the same way. Even the guys who have been doing it 50 years longer than me,” said Copeland.

Copeland headlines the GLT Summer Concert on Saturday, June 9, in downtown Bloomington. Also performing are Bloomington’s Dan Hubbard and Sammy Miller and the Congregation.

Listen to the GLT interview with Shemekia Copeland.

People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.

Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.