Boogie Woogie pianist Al Copley talks about Roomful of Blues, Vaughans, Doc Pomus, Montreux, & Big Joe Turner

"I play blues because it's a constituent of life, and takes us from the back door of human love to the gate to The Wonderful World."

Al Copley: The King of  Boogie Woogie

Al Copley is a blues pianist who co-founded the American jump blues band Roomful of Blues with guitarist Duke Robillard in Westerly, Rhode Island in 1967. In 1974 Count Basie called Roomful "the hottest blues band I've ever heard". In 1975 Roomful signed a recording contract with Island Records, thanks to support from Doc Pomus. After 16 years and 7 albums with Roomful, Copley relocated to Europe in 1984, where he still travels and performs extensively.

Strongly influenced by the music of Big Joe Turner, Copley's solo style spans several genres and defies categorization, including (but certainly not limited to) swing, boogie-woogie and barrelhouse. Live performances are characterized by their energy and Copley's acrobatic approach to piano performance, in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Copley has performed and recorded with Lou Rawls, the Fabulous T-birds, 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 McNeely, Roy "Good Rockin" Brown and a host of others.
Copley has twice been nominated for a Grammy Award in the category Best Traditional Blues Album. In 1978 he performed with the original Blues Brothers, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and in 1993 he opened for Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall, performing with Jimmie Vaughan. His performances on the main stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival include opening for Bob Dylan in 1998, opening for Eric Clapton's Legends, doing a duo of "Jazz-Hot" with Jeff Healey, and opening the Blues Summit with Etta James and B. B. King. Copley also performed at the first Montreux Jazz Festival in Japan with George Duke and McCoy Tyner in 1998. His "Glass Boogie" is one of the most inventive boogie-woogie piano solos ever recorded.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues &who were your first idols?
As a teenager, I listened to a lot of British bands, mostly the Animals and the Stones. From them, I started looking up whoever wrote the songs, and discovered names like Jimmy Reed, McKinley Morganfield and Chester Burnett. It was awhile before I found out the last two were Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. Once I found out about Chicago Blues, I found a record of "Otis Spann's South Side Piano" and then I knew that was for me. From Otis to Memphis Slim, to Pete Johnson to Count Basie to Duke Ellington to Lionel Hampton to Louie Jordan to Tiny Bradshaw to Roy Milton to Bill Haley to Jerry Lee to Professor Longhair to Archibald --- you know how that goes -- there's no "best" because they each have a Voice that's important and great.

What does Boogie Woogie offered you & why do you play the blues?
Boogie-woogie is swing music to me, and it's linked directly to Native American music, and loops from swing into rock 'n' roll. I play blues because it's a constituent of life, and takes us from the back door of human love to the gate to The Wonderful World.

Is "blues" a way of life & what does "88 black and white keys" mean to you?
I used to think blues was looking for trouble. Now I know blues is living life happily IN SPITE of what troubles try to do. It was the response to being in a situation in which there is no human solution possible -- and still going on. The whole world has the blues today.
If we're going to get into black and white keys, then I will ask you to think about how the Chaldeans recognized Five Moving Stars in the sky, and the Greeks noticed there were Seven. Put them together and you have 12. It's much, much deeper than on the surface. One day we will have an infinite number of notes, but One Harmony. It's all in one's point of view.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Difficult question because of relativity. I knew I'd never see the age of 30, but today I have a maturity and stamina which sometimes makes it all feel like a breeze. (When I was younger I'd bounce back between some nights it's like "This is the greatest gig in the world -- I wish everyone could do this," and other nights it's like "What the hell is this ? Mating ritual of the bees? How long can this go on??") Musically, maybe the best was the time I spent with people like Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Count Basie and Professor Longhair.
Mostly nowadays, it's really a Wonderful World, and I'm sky high being onstage losing myself in the Music.

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?
I look out and don't see individual people, just humanity looking for and getting its own harmony. We share the deal.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Frankly, there's never been a time like today. All my wows were in the Now.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
Big Joe Turner said when I was 21, "Don't the blues make you so happy ?" And I had no idea what he was talking about. Now I understand. Basie had amazing secrets, and Wild Bill Davis, whenever someone brought up "these modern times" (even in the '80s) would repeat "What we really have here is a distortion of values." Chew that one over.

How was your recording hours with all your guests?
If you're referring to the T-birds record, we all grew up musically with each other so we speak the same language. It's been great being with intuitive musicians like Snooks Eaglin, Jeff Healey and Stevie Ray Vaughan, all of whom gave "silent" messages.

Tell me about the beginning of Roomful of Blues. How did you choose the name and where did it start?
Randy Saunders wrote a song entitled "Roomful of Blues." It wasn't recorded until 2005 when I finally wrote the melody and arranged it and recorded it with my own band (see "Radio Play" OMCD 1205) but it named a band. Roomful was a collective bunch of outsiders from Rhode Island who loved music no one else in town did, not because no one else knew about it, but because it was great stuff, and we weren't interested in being popular and contemporary. We simply wanted to play the music we were discovering as well as we could.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your meet with Jake & Elwood Blues
Well, we had a producer named Doc Pomus (look him up -- an amazing songwriter) who brought John and Dan over to the Bottom Line in NYC. They LOVED what Roomful did, and hoped we would be their touring band. Frankly we wondered why they couldn't get Professor Longhair or Clifton Chenier onto Saturday Night Live and make them overnight successes. Dan replied that their "producers only want 'Eagles, Eagles, Eagles,' and if we want to help blues, we have to do a routine about it." It was an unsatisfactory reply to us then, and we took it no further than the first gig at the Lone Star Cafe in NYC (1978.) Well, so much for thinking that SNL encourages a real revolution -- it just sells stuff...

                                                                                                  Photo by A. F. Wensler

How did you first meet Eric Clapton? Three words to describe him
Jimmie hadn't picked up a guitar for three years when Eric asked him to open for him at Royal Albert Hall. Jimmie said he wanted me there. I went through this routine with the agents and stage managers about whether pianos were made of wood or not. "Well, we'll TRY to get you a real piano, but if we can't, what would you play?" I refused to answer -- there were a 1,000 other guys who play keyboards better than me, and if that's what you want, go get one..."
"Don't you want the gig?"
"I play piano. Of course I want the gig, but you know as well as I do that there's a Steinway D under the stage there for Oscar Peterson. What's the problem?"
After weeks of this stuff, Jimmy's agent called up and said that Jimmy and Eric had talked about it and they decided that pianos were made out of wood. It was all about the sound techs, and the push to bury the piano in those days.
Eric Clapton in three words? Grateful, locked away and kind.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your tour with George Duke & McCoy Tyner in Japan?
It would take too long to tell one. We had a total ball with George and his buddy Marty Perrelis, who had written lyrics with Zappa and was a road manager for Berry Gordy. George loves whatever he does so much it's infectious! On this tour, I couldn't help but see an invisible but enormous shadow of Oscar Peterson behind McCoy. Only the important ideas remain.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your work with Vaughans.  What kind of a guy was Stevie?
Stevie, as I said before, was intuitive. I've only experienced that type of intuition with blind guys. The truth is, there's not a musician worth his salt who isn't that way. Stevie and I would have conversations and visits in dreams. When he died, the dream visits stopped. Still, I could write honestly to his brother, "I don't know where Stevie is now, but I KNOW he's in a GREAT PLACE."
Jimmie is a very honest gentleman, much deeper than appears on the surface. I used to tell the brothers that Stevie was like Art Tatum while Jimmie was like Count Basie. The one thing they each have in common is they each play off the back of the room.

What are some of the most memorable tales with Fabulous T-birds?
Also mostly unmentionable! We knew each other in the Old Daze. There was so much fun, compensated with misery,  that the highs were the highest and the downs were the lowest. Hardly anything  in between.

How is your relationship with Bob Dylan?
I have no relationship with him. I am grateful he knew who I was and agreed to have me open for him at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1998.

                                                                                               Photo by Philippe Maeder

Are there any memories from Jeff Healey, which you'd like to share with us?
Jeff and I discovered each other in Montreux in 1997. I was playing Claude Nob's piano up at his chalet when Jeff, whom I'd heard the night before (though he's a bit noisy, running over his guitar but Man, he loves it, and he gave Robert Cray a tough act to follow !) picks up an acoustic Dobro and we rip into "Sweet Georgia Brown" and Claude went hoops. Turns out  Jeff was a true Jazz Lover, and we pulled out until he had to go, singing Louis Armstrong until 7 am every day and every night. Claude has us do a set of "Jazz Hot" in between Chris Rea and Blues Travelers.

Of all the people you've meeting with, who do you admire the most?
I probably would say Count Basie and Duke Ellington, although I never met Ellington. The way they each kept those bands going was an amazing achievement. The Music they left changed our world.

Why did you think that Al Copley, continued to generate such a devoted following?
Thank you for your kind comment. I just want to be myself and get the Al out of the way. The Music we hear and play is Our Harmony.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
I like to guy who said in the 1970s that "the Blues' obituary has been written for 30 years, but nobody's ever seen a corpse." And someone else said "Whenever pop music gets lost, the blues returns." It's The basic American folklore -- the (universal) feeling of movin on, following the sun, chasing the herds across the Great Plains. It has something to do with the Plains Indians too, but nothing's been written about that yet.

What do you think are the landmark albums for the Boogie Woogie, what characterized the sound of Boogie Woogie?
Hard to name whole albums of boogie-woogie. During the Heyday the records were 78s. Maybe that's why I just released a CD of my own particular statement on the genre -- "Albi's Boogies" OMCD1207 -- as in what I did after recording "Albi's Boogie" and leaving Roomful.
I always love the "Death Ray Boogie" by Pete Johnson and "Twisting the Cat's Tail" by Erroll Garner (yes, Erroll did a bop boogie that's off the rails!)

Al Copley - Official website

                                                                                                     Photo by Uli Steinfeld

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