Should you desire a crash course in the extremes that define Shemekia Copeland's brand of the blues, just check out the two tunes that bookend her fine 2012 album, 331⁄3.
At the beginning sits Lemon Pie, a big beat blast of blues-infused funk that powers some socio-economic hardball ("others get the steak, you get the bone"). But as it concludes, Copeland turns down the rage with a light, wiry stroll through Bob Dylan's classic I'll Be Your Baby Tonight.
Such are the temperaments that make up just part of the musical voice belonging to the present-day Queen of the Blues. Admittedly, her majesty has received some fine tutelage in establishing that voice. She took to heart the vocal phrasing and performance inspirations of her father, famed Texas blues guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland. There were also lessons — in life as much as music — soaked up from the previous Queen of the Blues, Chicago sensation Koko Taylor. Mostly though, Shemekia Copeland learned the blues by living them. She essentially grew up in public, performing and recording alongside such greats as Dr. John, Steve Cropper, Ruth Brown and others to become a multiple W.C. Handy Blues Award winner and Grammy nominee.
"For me, I think the blues is about telling your story," says Copeland, who returns to Natasha's for a performance Friday night. "When I was a kid, my father used to say, 'If it wasn't for the blues, I wouldn't weigh over 90 pounds.' He meant that, too. I feel that way about the music, as well. It's been my entire life, pretty much from birth. It's everything to me."
While the Harlem-born singer's recording career has seen the release of seven albums during the past 16 years (she was 19 when her 1998 debut, Turn the Heat Up!, was released), the sounds instilled by her father — a vocal style both earthshaking and intimate — still guide Copeland's music today.
"I've stolen everything I possibly can from him — his phrasing, everything. But people don't really recognize that because I'm a woman. If I was a man, it would be different. Also, if I played guitar, I think people would notice more. Dr. John always says that I approach the music vocally the way a man would. And it's true because I always listen to male singers. My father was a great singer, so yeah, I stole everything from him. He's in there. He's in everything that I do."
The great Taylor proved another profound mentoring figure, from the time she befriended Copeland as a blooming talent to the time the former's title of Queen of the Blues was formally given to her young protégé. But that wasn't at all what Copeland treasured most about their friendship.
"Let me just say that woman was amazing," Copeland says of Taylor, who died in 2009. "In terms of talent, she was unmatchable. But what I loved most about her was that she was so kind to me. She didn't know me. She didn't know anything about me. She just heard that I was a girl who could sing. So this woman took me under her wings and was kind to me. As I started out, she would call me to see how I was doing. She would call my mom to see how I was doing. She was instrumental in giving me advice on how to survive out on the road. She just went above and beyond what you would think anyone would do for a person.
"Today, I'm just proud to be called a blues singer and a blues artist. So many other people feel being called that limits you. Well, it hasn't limited me in any kind of way. I sing what I want to sing about. If I want to rock out, I rock out. If I want to be funky, I'm funky. Whatever I want to do, I do it."