Playing His Heart Out


Some of Johnny Copeland’s fans might suggest that his intense but sophisticated blues singing and guitar playing are heroic on their own merits. But by the simple fact that he continues to play live, Copeland is heroic in another sense.

The 59-year-old blues man has cardiomyopathy--a condition that requires a device to pump blood to his heart. But it’s only a temporary aid; Copeland is in dire need of a transplant.

He’s in line for a new heart, and while he waits, he continues limited touring--including a performance Saturday at the 17th Annual Long Beach Blues Festival.

“I feel OK,” Copeland said in a recent interview from his Teaneck, N.J., home. “I’m all right. Sometimes my energy level falls, you know, but other than that I’m OK. This amazing new machine . . . helps me to get around. But when you’re on [it], your body builds up antibodies that fight the machine. Now I’m at the top of the list [for a donor heart], but we just have to wait to get one that matches. If they give you a heart that doesn’t match perfect enough, it could kill you.”


Copeland had just come home from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, where he received heart medication and treatment. Though he seemed in good spirits, Copeland did not sound as OK as he asserted. In fact, he sounded downright weak, and it was difficult to imagine him performing, as he appeared to be having some trouble just talking on the phone.

Copeland this year has performed more than 20 concerts, interspersed with three open-heart surgeries.

During his weekly visits to the hospital, he brings along a guitar and sings to lift the spirits of his fellow heart patients. Copeland said his doctor has told him he thinks his music has been therapeutic for all.

“I don’t know how much it helps them, but I know it don’t hurt,” Copeland said. “They really enjoy it; they’re happy with it. There’s a lot of young people in there. There’s a 13-year-old, a 16-year-old, a 19-year-old and a whole host of people in their 30s--I can’t even count them all.”


Under normal circumstances, Copeland would be touring like a madman right now, promoting his latest album, “Jungle Swing,” released last month.

Something of a follow-up to 1985’s “Bringin’ It All Back Home” (recorded in Africa and influenced by native music), “Jungle Swing” is another experiment in mixing American blues with tribal sounds.

Copeland’s soulful vocals and biting guitar work are in fine form, complemented by the African percussion, instrumentation and melodic style that runs through the album, which among its other merits serves as a sort of primer on the link between American blues and African rumba. In fact, at times it resembles the Gulf Coast sound of many New Orleans blues and R&B; performers, revealing the roots of more than one American genre.

“It’s not really a contrast at all,” Copeland said. “Music is the international language. Most all the stuff we do comes from Africa originally; the blues we write over here is African-influenced. It might come at you from another way if you see it in Africa. One guy is sitting with a gourd and chanting; one guy’s playing a one-string instrument--you got to be listening close to recognize it.


“It’s always there in the blues; you just have to be looking for it. I love it. When I first went to Africa [in 1981] and I saw them beating the drums, they said to me, ‘Welcome home.’ They recognized that I was a part of them.”

Copeland sounded genuinely excited about his new album--and more than a bit frustrated that his health is preventing him from touring behind it as vigorously as he would like.

“I just want to get out there and keep singing the blues. I am limited to how much I can tour now, but once I get that transplant I can tour Europe and do everything I want.”





* 11 a.m.: Smokin’ Joe Kubek

* Noon: Fran and Holiman


* 1 p.m.: Texas Johnny Brown

* 1:20: Sonny Rhodes

* 1:40: Long John Hunter

* 2:20: Charles Brown


* 3:40: Johnny Copeland

* 5: Bobby Blue Bland


* 11:45 a.m.: W.C. Clark


* 12:05 p.m.: Clarence Holiman

* 12:25: Joe Hughes

* 12:45: Texas Pete Mayes

* 1:15: Angela Strehli


* 1:45: Lou Ann Barton

* 2:30: Marcia Ball

* 3:45: Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown

* 5: The Texas Tornados



* 11 a.m.: Anson & the Rockets

* Noon: Floyd Dixon/Jimmy “T-99" Nelson

* 1:20 p.m.: Asleep at the Wheel


* 2:40 Cal Green

* 2:55: Guitar Shorty

* 3:10: Roy Gaines

* 3:25: Lowell Fulson


* 3:40: Tribute to T-Bone Walker

* 4:30: Grady Gaines & the Texas Upsetters

* 5: Little Richard

The 17th Annual Long Beach Blues Festival runs Saturday through Monday on the north athletic field at Cal State Long Beach. Presented by KLON-FM (88.1). Gates open each day at 9 a.m. Tickets are $22.50-$25 per day in advance; $28 per day at the gate or $60 for a three-day pass. Picnicking is allowed, but recording devices, umbrellas, lawn chairs, barbecue grills, pets, glass or metal containers, including soda cans, are prohibited. (310) 985-5566.