Shades of blue

Feeling her way: Only 26 and already dripping with awards, Shemekia Copeland, who got her start at age 8 at Harlem’s Cotton Club, will replace the ailing Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown as LEAF’s Saturday-night headliner.

Singer Shemekia Copeland was dubbed “Miss Meek” by her late father, blues legend Johnny Copeland.

She never lived up to the name.

Hardly meek before her fans, Ms. Copeland, 26, asserts herself in blues songs she selects according to her own standards of empowerment.

“Women are strong,” Copeland said recently. “So I doubt very seriously [they] want to hear, ‘I’d rather go blind than have you walk away from me.'” Instead she opts, she says, for messages along the lines of: “‘Go away, I don’t need that crap. I can take care of myself.'”

Unmarried, the Harlem native — who will this Saturday headline the 20th-anniversary edition of the Lake Eden Arts Festival — gave a phone interview en route to a recent audition for the Broadway production of The Color Purple. (She’s also acted — portraying mostly blues singers — on screens small and large, including playing herself in Martin Scorsese’s blues documentary Lightning in a Bottle.)

A rising artist contending with the pitfalls of a still-male-dominated music industry, Copeland stands up for herself offstage, too — though her strategy seems based less on might than raw faith: “Say a prayer. Go with the flow. Hope people don’t screw you.”

The singer credits Koko Taylor, Ruth Brown and other female blues pioneers for making it easier on current stars. But ultimately, each artist must earn and reciprocate respect. “It’s how you carry yourself,” she says. “If you respect people, people respect you.”

A riveting talent, Copeland earned a Grammy nomination for her soulful single “It’s 2:00 A.M.” From her 2000 album Wicked, the tune won her a prestigious W.C. Handy Award for Song of the Year. She’s up for another Handy this year, for Best Contemporary Female Blues Artist. In fact, her booming alto has reaped her four Handys and five Living Blues awards.

And she gains further accolades for intuition and candor. “She’s bright, funny, and has a terrific radar for detecting baloney,” says her manager, John Hahn, from his office in NYC. Hahn has written and co-produced several of Copeland’s songs, including some of her signature ladies-first anthems.

“She loves men,” Hahn ventures. ” … Some songs seem a little rough on guys, [but] underneath you know she cares about them.”

However, “if they mess up, she’s too smart and has too much pride to stick around,” he adds. Hahn has experienced his client’s assertiveness for years: He produced her father Johnny’s work, and has known Shemekia since she was eight. He recalls that even back then she once told off someone who cut in front of her in line at a post office. “She was a riot. Confident, bold, precocious — but amusing.”

However, charming the masses comes with its challenges. Mortified when her father urged her to try to sing with him at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club when she was small, the singer has struggled with stage fright ever since. “I’m still scared of performing in front of people live,” she admits. “You don’t get over it. But you learn how to deal with it.” She reveals she’s been near tears due to pre-show jitters; Hahn says he reminds her to channel her adrenaline from nervousness into excitement: “The two emotions,” he points out, “are close.”

Once onstage, she fares better, feeding off crowd mood. “I don’t write a set list. I feel out the audience — what they want to hear.” Headlining the 2002 Chicago Blues Festival, Copeland stepped back from the microphone and still projected well — to 100,000 fans.

And when she doesn’t have time to get nervous, she blooms. Copeland found herself having to improvise when B.B. King (live on David Letterman) threw out new words to her mid-duet.

At LEAF, Copeland will replace ailing swing-and-blues veteran Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, who was slated to headline the festival before his current battles with heart disease and cancer made him too sick to travel. “I love Gate … I’m sorry he’s not well,” says Shemekia, who has in fact sung with him several times.

Her own father, like Gate, suffered from heart trouble, which killed him. Interestingly, both men emerged from Texas, and were friends. Johnny Copeland (with Albert Collins and Robert Cray) won a Grammy in 1986 for Showdown! on Alligator Records, his daughter’s current label. Shemekia remarks: “I feel his spirit onstage every night.”

Living out his own last days in New Orleans, Gatemouth Brown has been a popular mainstay at LEAF. Which means that both men’s ghosts will sing backup when this strong woman steps up to the mic Saturday night.

[Contributing writer Pete Zamplas lives in Hendersonville.]

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