Q&A with pianist/singer Al Copley (co-founder of Roomful of Blues): energy, versatility and impeccable harmony

"Now today the whole world appears to have no answer, no hope, no solutions. So, it's like we are all slaves, but are we going to give up and roll over, or will we keep singing those Blues away? I had no idea what Big Joe Turner meant when he said to us (I was 25 years old) "Don't the Blues make you feel so happy?" Now I know. It's living in spite of trouble, not looking for it nor griping."

Al Copley: Swing, Happiness & Freedom

Pianist and singer; arranger and co-founder of "Roomful of Blues" - the renowned American jump band nominated for two Grammy Awards while he was with them. After 16 years with Roomful, relocated to Europe in 1984, and back home to the US in 2010. Al has been performing extensively in Europe and the northeast US for the past few years, appears regularly in NYC and Paris, and continues to develop in style and taste, always noted for energy, versatility and impeccable harmony. He has been included in Chapman Roberts' 2018 "Broadway Jazz Festival" in Manhattan with stars from Chapman's hit plays "Blues in the Night," "Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Five Guys Named Moe" and "Bubbling Brown Sugar."                                (Al Copley, JazzAscona 2017 / Photo by Alessio Pizzicannella)

In 2016 Al instigated a reunion recording of the 1970s version of Roomful of Blues. In June 2002 and 2009, Al Copley performed four of his own full symphonic orchestrations before an audience of more than 25,000 with the Boston Festival Orchestra at Summer Pops. Has also performed with: the original Blues Brothers (John Belushi / Dan Ackroyd), Etta James, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ruth Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, Snooks Eaglin, John Hammond Jr., Big Mama Thornton/ George "Harmonica" Smith, Otis Rush, Big Walter Horton, Helen Humes, Benny Waters, Hal Singer, Arnett Cobb, Scott Hamilton, Big Jay McNealy, Roy "Good Rockin" Brown, and a host of others... and is also a stalwart at Roomful Reunions...

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Swing music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I think of Blues as American Folklore, the basis of nearly all-American music. It is the sense of "The Sun is going to shine in my back door someday, and the Wind is going to rise and blow my blues away." In the same way the Native Americans followed the herds, so Americans have followed their dreams and chased their hopes in search of a better world.

The Blues is going on no matter what.

Swing was a free way of playing songs. It cannot be notated by the way... It is a peculiarly American style built on the dance floor. Swing is an expression of happiness and freedom.

What were the reasons that make Rhode Island the center of swing blues revival? How do you describe your songbook/sound?

Is this a true statement? All that happened in Rhode Island with Roomful of Blues is that music which was always there but hidden to our neighborhood was discovered as we wanted to know where rock n roll came from, a search for Roots. So, Roomful of Blues was a bunch of weirdos who blocked out the rest of the world, played music we liked without any regard or even a desire to find an audience. The audience recognized something different and once they found out how to dance to it, they had as much fun as we did with black r&b from the 1940s.

The songbook and sound? OK after WW2 ended, black music basically split into two concepts: bebop and jump blues. Bebop (Bird, Diz) played tempi way too fast for dancers and would up goofing on the audience, ultimating with Miles Davis flipping the bird at the audience with his back to them. Jump Blues (Kansas City Jazz, Count Basie, Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton) kept playing medium tempi for dancers and this ultimated in Rock and Roll. Basie and Ellington managed to play to both crowds.

"I think of Blues as American Folklore, the basis of nearly all-American music. It is the sense of "The Sun is going to shine in my back door someday, and the Wind is going to rise and blow my blues away." In the same way the Native Americans followed the herds, so Americans have followed their dreams and chased their hopes in search of a better world." (Roomful of Blues & Big Joe Turner / Photo by Joseph Rosen)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Most people are interested in names like Eric Clapton, the Blues Brothers etc, but what I cherish are people like Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, "Big" Joe Turner, Lou Rawls, Jimmie Witherspoon, Helen Humes, Arnett Cobb, Big Mama Thornton and so many others we have backed up. The most memorable experiences were interactions with Count Basie and Earl "Fatha" Hines. Basie told us many things, from "How can you quit when you haven't done anything yet?" to (six months later) "Now I want you boys to understand something: You are Musicians and you now know too much. You can't get out. If you don't play, you'll start to die."

Earl "Fatha" Hines impressed me after I said "Well I'm two weeks away from my 30th birthday and I'm always wondering 'but what was Earl Hines doing when he was 30?'" He looked at me with so much compassion, shook his head and said, "Oh Babe, don't ever do that. Don't ever compare yourself to anyone else. Never copy anyone else. Use all the Ideas you can get, but never copy anyone. Get your own style. You GOT your own style. It's GREAT." (I needed extra heavy shoes to keep from floating away, and everything I played for two weeks was wonderful.) I will never forget how that great man (the pianist's equivalent of Louis Armstrong) gave me 90 minutes of his valuable time to tell me the Facts of Life. So did Basie.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music circuits?

I had to learn to put out just for the sake of putting out. When I need something back, someone will try to deprive me of it. I have walked onto stages, smiled and said to myself "I don't need your approval" and then smiled even more. Believe it or not, that puts people to ease, except for the Critics (those looking for what's wrong.)

"I love real pianos, made of wood, the kind that become a challenge at the end of the night because they go out of tune. I used to think in the 1970s "Oh it's too late, all the great bands are gone," but now I recognize the 70s were a decade of Bands -- anyone who played in one then can be a bandleader today…" (Al Copley on stage, Triad NYC April 2017 / Photo by Joseph Rosen)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

So many I'm flooded with them. I remember the recording session with Lou Rawls (Shades of Blues.) Having that Man's voice coming through the headphones is a trip to Musicland. He remembered me when we met years later at the Montruex Jazz Festival.

Now Montreux was a World of Ideas, and once I was playing up at Claude Nobs' chalet during the festival, Jeff Healey jumped into it chunckin' a Dobro full of Hot Jazz (like Sweet Georgia Brown.) I had heard his blues rock the night before but I had no idea how much he loved what's called Trad Jazz, 30s 40s swing songs a la Louis Armstrong.

Anyway, we became fast friends for all the time he was there. I was there for the entire festival that year (1997) and Claude immediately scheduled us to do a duo before Chris Rea and Blues Traveler. At 4am the regualr musician at Harry's New York Bar in the Montreux Palace told us the manager said we had to stop. We did but right away the manager asked me "Why did you stop?"

How about Roomful's first night in New Orleans, opening for Professor Longhair (1976?.) Our opener was "Okeedokee Stomp." Duke, who usually played with his eyes shut, opened them to see Gatemouth Brown right in front of him, glaring with his arms folded, his cowboy hat and sheriff's badge. Well Duke just looked, gasped, and shut his eyes again. It was one of the best performances Duke ever played....

One night in Houston in 1981, Cleanhead, Ruth Brown and Albert Collins all wanted to sit in... in San Francisco, Carlos Santana sat in and Boz Scaggs stormed the stage. Boz showed up the next time we played Nick's Uptown in Dallas and gave us a glorious set of true blues.....

The night we were playing with Cleanhead at Sandy's Jazz Revival north of Boston. The club was packed but I thought I saw that captain's hat walk in. It was Basie. I was so stoned and flabbergasted that when I met him all I could blurt out was "Gee Mr Basie, I've seen all of your movies..." (lol) Those were drinkin' days, bro'.

I played the main stage at Montreux solo three times, many other appearances there like the BB King Jams, Royal Albert Hall with Jimmie Vaughan opening for Clapton in 1993.... not to mention the club is Gstaad I played for 8 High Seasons where my wife had started a scene of dancing on top of the piano. This was Over the Top for Fun. (There were teenaged kids there who said "We don't know anything about the music you're playing, but we love the way it makes us feel.")

"I had to learn to put out just for the sake of putting out. When I need something back, someone will try to deprive me of it. I have walked onto stages, smiled and said to myself "I don't need your approval" and then smiled even more. Believe it or not, that puts people to ease, except for the Critics (those looking for what's wrong.)" (Photo: Roomful of Blues 1973 at the Knick - Al Copley, John Rossi, Duke Robillard, Ed Parnigoni, Rich Lataille, Greg Piccolo, Doug James)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I love real pianos, made of wood, the kind that become a challenge at the end of the night because they go out of tune. I used to think in the 1970s "Oh it's too late, all the great bands are gone," but now I recognize the 70s were a decade of Bands -- anyone who played in one then can be a bandleader today…

The emphasis was always on individuality and style. You didn't have to be the best on your instrument, but if you could be recognized after three notes as you, that was acceptable. It was more a matter of what you had to say. Today it's all copies ("He plays like Little Walter" etc.)

In the old days the bigger the town the more this individuality was appreciated. They wanted to hear everyone. In the smaller towns they need to say you were "like" someone else... Today the big towns compare you to someone else.... except maybe Paris?

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Blockchain and the Internet may prove to be the fairest thing for artists, if it's not overly controlled. I dream of a world where we can make our recordings, offer them directly from our own bases and receive immediate accurate income through Blockchain security, eliminating the middleman. (If you understand how Blockchain works, which is with mathematical precision, you will understand what this means to our future.)

It used to be that record companies and agents ripped off artists. We were told when we first went to NYC that "Artists make their money from the live performances" (ie don't expect to see any accountability from labels.)

Then in the Millennial decade, Napster ripped off the record companies, which have melted down into distribution chains for downloads and streaming. The techs charge for their services, in a way which still prevents the Artists from receiving a reasonable fee (what's wrong with $1 per track vs 1 penny = $0.01 per track?)

With Blockchain these middle men will be extraneous, including banks. They will fight tooth and nail against such secure freedom, but they will not be able to stop the Blockchain from becoming mainstream.

"All that happened in Rhode Island with Roomful of Blues is that music which was always there but hidden to our neighborhood was discovered as we wanted to know where rock n roll came from, a search for Roots. So, Roomful of Blues was a bunch of weirdos who blocked out the rest of the world, played music we liked without any regard or even a desire to find an audience." (Roomful of Blues, Westerly train station 1979/ Photo by Vinnie Scarano‎)

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Roomful of Blues early days?

It's those Moments when something wonderful happens for the first time.

It's those heaven hell contrasts of life on the Road. Never been so bad, and never been so funny.

I'd have to say that Porky Cohen was a barrel of laughs, whether he wanted to be or not. I think Roomful had an amazing amount of great wits and comics in it. This kept us going through the hell times. Doug James is truly a great Wit, trust me.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

As I said before, the Blues is American Folklore. It was the music of people who had no hope at all. They were slaves, and their children were born into slavery. In some places they weren't allowed to talked when they worked but they were allowed to sing. So they sang coded messages to each other to tell what was going on ("The Dog jumped a Rabbit and he ran him hop skip and jump.... The Hunter tried to shoot him but he hid behind a Stump." -- Smiley Lewis' "Bumpity Bump")

Now today the whole world appears to have no answer, no hope, no solutions. So, it's like we are all slaves, but are we going to give up and roll over, or will we keep singing those Blues away? I had no idea what Big Joe Turner meant when he said to us (I was 25 years old) "Don't the Blues make you feel so happy?"

Now I know. It's living in spite of trouble, not looking for it nor griping.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

The Cotton Club in Harlem 1934. Duke Ellington rehearsals and shows. Everyone there was some kind of performer, even the waiters, busboys, waitresses, bartenders and cooks. This was the Golden Age of American Music. (Why only one day??)

Al Copley - Home

Al Copley, Paris 2013 / Photo by Jean-charles Nalin

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