Canadian bluesman Les Copeland talks with poetic phrases about his mentors and the blues of of compassion

"The days of blues are gone but there are those that must carry on. There are those that will keep carrying the torch no matter what. Never give up what you were born with and love despite the popular trends of the day."

Les Copeland: The Love & Purity of Blues

Les Copeland has always played guitar. He is schooled in most styles and can improvise anything. He fell in love with the blues at a young age upon hearing the music of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Les has travelled all over playing his guitar and learned many different styles. He is a consummate musician, specializing in blues, jazz and roots music. Les Copeland was born in Kelowna B.C. Canada on August 7, 1959. He currently resides with his wife and children in the beautiful Okanagan Valley town of Vernon BC. He has supported his family by playing local gigs and touring. Over the years Les has met some incredibly talented musicians. He has promoted some tours across Canada and made some great friends. Les plays with many people in his home area as well. He has toured across Canada, as rhythm guitarist and also opening act, many times with legendary bluesman David Honeyboy Edwards since their first meeting in 1997. In 2009 Les toured England, Wales, Italy and Austria in the Honeyboy Edwards Trio, with Les on second guitar and Michael Frank on harmonica. A highlight of that tour was playing Venice’s 53rd Biennale Contemporary Music Festival.

Les has also promoted concerts in Canada and toured with the late Jimmie Lee Robinson, Louisiana Red, Jimmy D. Lane, Dennis Binder and Sonny Rhodes. In May of 2010, Les joined the ranks of Michael Frank’s Earwig Music label with the CD release of Don’t Let The Devil In. This debut CD on Earwig Music is pure Les Copeland as a solo artist and songwriter, with the exception of Honeyboy Edwards backing Les on 2 cuts with his guitar, and Michael Frank backing on 3 cuts with harmonica. Michael Frank has introduced Les to a worldwide audience with this debut recording. It has received excellent reviews, including Living Blues, Blues Revue and Vintage Guitar. In 2011, The Les Copeland Band opened for blues legend Buddy Guy in Kelowna B.C Canada. Upon David Honeyboy Edwards’ official retirement in July of 2011 Michael Frank made it possible to fly to Chicago to visit the elder bluesman. On top of personally taking Les to visit with Honeyboy, Michael took Les to meet and sit in with some of Chicago’s other blues legends, including Mary Lane and Johnny Drummer. Copeland's second album, To Be In Your Company (2015), with the title cut being Les’s tribute to Honeyboy, his teacher, guru, working partner and traveling companion of 15 years.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Special Thanks: Betsie Brown (Blind Raccoon) & Michael Frank (Earwig Music)

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

We have a lot in common…We see eye to eye.

How do you describe Les Copeland sound and songbook? What characterize your musical philosophy? 

All over the map. I play anything from any genre. Good music is good music. Period. As far as my sound goes it is fairly unadorned, although it also goes all over the map depending on what style I am playing at the time. My musical philosophy is simple. It needs to be honest and therapeutic at the same time. I look at music as therapy. Without music in my life I would not fit in. I would not survive. 

What were the reasons that you start the Roots Folk Blues researches and experiments?

It was hardwired into my system before I was born. I had no choice. I have always been a musical sponge. Regardless of genre. When I was 11 years old I heard Mississippi Fred McDowell on record. That was probably my first significant life changing experience for me music wise. I had no idea that it existed until I heard Fred’s monologue and song Red Cross Store. It still gives me the shivers!

"A need to play music for selfish and therapeutical reasons. Blind faith. A reason to live. A desire to fill the air with the beautiful sounds that turned oneself on in the first place. Heritage and tradition. A love for pure improvisation. Finding ones voice on this planet… Sharing… Brotherhood… Solace... Peace!"

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice given you?

Hands down the most important musical experiences for me was any and all of the time that I spent with my beautiful friend David Honeyboy Edwards. I loved that man and any advice he gave me I cherish to this day. For instance when I was very down and hanging my head down over serious marriage problems I was walking out of Honeyboy’s hotel room. He could tell I was very messed up and stopped me before I left, looked me in the eye and very kindly said to me… Hold your head up Les. Then we parted. I will never forget that situation and his kind and caring words. He was a beautiful man.

Are there any memories of David Honeyboy Edwards that you would like to share with us?

Yes many. I will start with Honeyboy, I first met Honeyboy in 1997 as we were both performers at The Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival. I had asked Linda Tanake, the festival organizer if I could pick up Honeyboy at the airport and be his valet. We played together at the festival and became fast friends. When I drove him back to the airport after the festival he invited me to come and stay with him at his home in Chicago to help me get musical work and to meet his manager, Michael Frank. 6 months later I arrived at his doorstep. This was in the evening. There to greet me was Honeyboy, Jeannie Horton and Tony. Jeannie was Honeyboy’s wife at the time. She was the daughter of Big Walter Horton. She was very kind to me. Cooked me food, brought me drinks. Tony was her boyfriend. Honeyboy had other girlfriends as well. That is just the way it was. They all got along but it was Honeyboy who ruled the house. I slept in Joanne’s room that night. She also lived there. She slept on the floor and I slept on her bed. I didn’t like to see her sleep on the floor. But that was Southern hospitality. The next morning Jeannie made breakfast for Honeyboy and I. As we ate I was staring at a plastic cup with Kool Aid in it. The cup said Checker board Lounge on it. The Checker board Lounge was a legendary bar where all the Blues people played and hung out. I was in awe. Honeyboy looked at me as I stared at my cup and said, Thats Kool Aid. I didnt say anything but I laughed inside because Honeyboy thought I was a space case and thought I didn’t know what Kool Aid was. After breakfast I needed to buy some cigarettes so I asked Honeyboy where the nearest store was. He said Just down the block. I told him i was going to the store to buy a pack of smokes. He shook his head and said No, Tony will go. He would not let me go out of his house for fear that somebody would kill me. I was deep in Southside Chicago. I understood, and Tony went to buy me a pack of smokes, but I didn’t like that either. As the day progressed Honeyboy and had a few drinks, smoked a few joints and we played guitar and talked. I was having the time of my life but I missed my wife and kids thousands of miles away and was feeling homesick. As the afternoon turned into evening the plan was that Michael Frank, Honeyboy’s manager was to pick Honeyboy and myself to go down to Buddy Guys club, Buddy Guys Legends. When Michael showed up we were putting on our jackets to go and I stopped and said to Honeyboy, call me a taxi to take me to the bus, I am going home. Michael couldn’t believe his ears but Honeyboy just snickered and said to Michael: The boy is homesick. That is when the 3 of us decided I would become a promoter for us. I figured if I was not going to stay in Chicago I would promote and work with Honeyboy in Canada. Then I left in a cab, went across the country for home and they went to Buddy Guy’s. Honeyboy and I worked, toured and hung out for the next 15 years until his death 3 years ago. 1 month before Honeyboy died he cashed in all of his Frequent Flier Points and he and Michael arranger for me to fly to Chicago to visit with Honeyboy. He died a month later. He was my daughter Lonnie’s Godfather. We all loved him as part of our family and I miss him every single day. He was not only an incredible musician but a beautiful incredible man as well. I could write a large book on my memories of David Honeyboy Edwards. I will join him in the next life.

"I would like to go to Mississippi in the mid to late 1930s and hang out with Honeyboy for a day and go to his gig in one of the Juke Joints he played and drive around in a Rocket 88 or a Terraplane car and visit with some of his friends like Charlie Patton, Tommy Mclennan, Robert Johnson or Sonny Boy Williamson."

Are there any memories of Sonny Rhodes that you would like to share with us?

Now, Sonny is a trip. Sonny, his wife Ann, Billy Baltera, Theo and Anthony. They were incredible. Incredible Gypsy Road Warriors! What a trip! You wanna meet seasoned incredible down home hard working blues people? This is them. Led by Sonny Rhodes. He wouldn’t drive his van and band a dozen miles or even hundreds of miles to a gig. Sometimes he would Thousands of miles to the next gig! Sonny and his bands of gypsies are the Real Deal. How I met Sonny was through Terry Biggar, a good friend of mine who lives 35 miles from my town of Vernon in the city of Kelowna B.C. Terry is an excellent blues harmonica player as well as a Promoter of Blues Artists. Terry and I hooked up and he gave me Sonny’s phone number in Florida.  Sonny and I talked, actually Ann Rhodes and I did the negotiations over the phone and then I put some gigs together for them in my area. One of the gigs in Vernon was at The Towne Theatre, a movie theatre run by my good friend and partner Gerry Sellars. The other gig was to be a house party at my house and in my backyard on the porch. Well they drove to my place from Florida. Thousands of miles away. It only took him 2 days. Sonny and his band played to a packed house of 400 people at The Towne Theatre that night. Well I tell you, Sonny and his band knocked us all out. Never was given a better show than Sonny gave that night. They played like a million bucks and Sonny looked like a million bucks. Sonny had on this Beautiful red suit and shoes and hat. Sonny was grieving that night and was incredibly emotional. His good friend Johnny Copeland had passed away a few days earlier. At the close of the night, drenched in sweat, Sonny stopped. And then he spoke of his friend Johnny and the band started playing a slower blues groove behind his speech. And with tears streaming down his face Sonny launched into a heart wrenching improvised blues song as an ode and goodbye to Johnny Copeland. Everybody was mesmerized. When the song was over Sonny slumped over his Lap Slide guitar sobbing sadly and in exhaustion. The whole place was crying with him. There were tears running down my cheeks. Once the theatre emptied Sonny just laid back in one of the theatre chairs and passed out from giving so much of himself. The boys and I had to carry him out of the theatre, into a cab, and carry him up the stairs to his hotel room and take his boots off and put him to bed. I love Sonny and his gypsies. The next day, after a good night’s rest, Sonny, his wife Ann and Sonny’s band, my band, and a yard full of fans and friends gathered at my house to play the Blues all night. Sonny cooked us all his most excellent barbecued chicken. The next morning we bid farewell till next time and Sonny and Company disappeared down the road in his van.

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

The Blues flourished in a time capsule. We, blues lovers, all know the historical events that led to the creation of this music. We also should be familiar with the pioneers of the blues and the field researchers and the people that recorded this music in the early part of the 19th century and beyond. These were the true days of the bluesmen. Those days are gone, much like the powdered wigs in Mozart’s day. But, the music lives on. And it always will. It will always stand on its own 2 feet. As far as my outlook on my hopes and fears for the future of the blues this is how I feel. There will always be blues and there will always be people who love blues music. There will always be true souls that will carry on the tradition. Some very good, some not so good. As well there will always be imposters. It is up to each individual to discover where he or she fits into the whole scene. You have to be a strong individual in your beliefs and representations of this beautiful music and hope and wait and see if there are enlightened listeners existing in todays’ modern age. In short…The days of blues are gone but there are those that must carry on. There are those that will keep carrying the torch no matter what. Never give up what you were born with and love despite the popular trends of the day.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Canada. Which is the most interesting period in local scene?

Human life only lasts so long. The original stable of Bluesmen, for the most part, are dead and gone. During the Folk Music revival of the 1960s these men came out of the woodwork and were presented to the general public by younger enthusiasts. How beautiful. But with the passage of time, these men and women have thinned out almost to the point of extinction. Presently we are dealing with a new strain of blues. We are hanging on by the skin of our teeth. I thank God that there are still writers, promoters, people with a true heart, that love the blues so much to the point that they can still keep the public aware of this beautiful music. Whether it be in Canada, The United States of America, China or Greece.

What has made you laugh from the late bluesman, Louisiana Red?

Louisiana Red was like a big child. The hardships that he had to endure must have been astronomical. Yet, as big of a man as he was, and as physically powerful as he was, he seemed to be a child in a grown man’s body. Not naive at all, just pure of heart. I remember taking him to a local music store once to look at guitars. Before we left the store he had played almost every single guitar in that store and left everybody in that store slack jawed and wide eyed. He was just an amazing guitar player. Especially when he played slide guitar. He was scary good without even trying. No ego just pure joy. One night at my house after supper he showed me with a wine bottle how Tampa Red had shown him how to make a bottleneck. After he had cut the glass he took me outside to my front sidewalk, got down on his hands and knees and took the rough edges off the bottleneck by grinding it into the sidewalk. I still have that bottleneck that he made for me. Another time I took Red down to an Indian Reservation to play for the natives. Red was part native. He played, they showered him with gifts and he showered them back with gifts. We had to drive 40 or 50 miles through the mountains to get to the Squilax Reservation. I drove up front with my wife and Red sat in the backseat with his wife. All the way there Red sand beautiful improvised verses of song. And boy, that man could sing so sweet. He entertained us all the way there making up songs about the rivers, mountains, fish, grizzly bears, eagles and so forth. I still laugh when I recall the time I had with such a pure soul of a man. Red was beautiful!

What touched (emotionally) you from your  your expiriences with the late great, Jimmie Lee Robinson?                                           (PHOTO: Honeyboy, Les & Michael Frank, 2009)

I met Jimmie Lee through Honeyboy. As I mentioned earlier Honeyboy had invited me to Chicago and I had arrived there on a bus that my friend Russ Young was taking to Detroit to sell. Russ and Honeyboy had arranged for Russ to drop me at a truck stop in the outskirts of Chicago before we hit the big city. Honeyboy had arranged for a man named Jimmie lee Robinson to meet us there and from there drive into Chicago and deliver me to Honeyboy’s home. Well, Russ missed the exit to the truckstop and wound up on the main highway into Chicago where, from his driver seat window hailed me a cab. Cars whizzing by at 100 miles an hour. With suitcases and 3 guitars. Holy! Luckily the cab did not leave me stranded as Russ had already taken off. And yes, of course the cab driver delivered me to Honeyboy’s doorstep. Thus, I never did meet Jimmie Lee on that trip. Once I settled in at Honeyboy’s I told him what had happened. Then Honeyboy started telling me about the man who was probably wondering why I was not at the truckstop. He told me Jimmie Lee played guitar and sang. Then Honeyboy kind of chuckled and said that Jimmie Lee wears cowboy boots with spurs on them and he keeps time with his spurs. I thought that was real cool. As you know I only stayed 1 day at Honeyboy’s but before I left Honeyboy, Michael and I had agreed that I would promote Honeyboy in and from Canada, where I live. Honey boy was the first to come. 3 months later Jimmie Lee was the second one to come. To come and play the blues. Live at my house while he is doing his gigs.

Well, I had contacted Jimmie lee by phone shortly after I had arrived back in Canada from Chicago to apologize to him about the truckstop and explain to him personally what had happened. We both had a good talk and laugh over the phone. I asked Jimmie Lee if he would like to come to my town and do some gigs. He said Sure. So I arranged the venues, the dates, and bought Jimmie Lee his plane tickets. We were all very excited to meet. Jimmie Lee. Jimmie wore a cowboy hat, so my kids, my wife and myself all showed up at the Kelowna Airport with cowboy hats on. We figured Jimmie would like that. Some of my friends came to greet him too. With a couple of nice cars. The plane lands and we are all watching the passengers entering the building approaching the Canada Customs counter. We can see them all through a glass window all lining up to go through Customs. No Jimmie Lee. Starting to get nervous. Where is he? Finally, the last person to get off the airplane walks through the door into Canada Customs. It’s Jimmie Lee! Jimmie Lee is about 6 feet 2 inches tall, he is wearing cowboy boots with spurs, and a cowboy hat. He looks about 6 feet 4 inches tall. And he keeps rooting around in his bag as passengers are being allowed entry into Canada.

I notice that one of the Customs agents has singled out Jimmie Lee from the other passengers and is watching him closely. I can smell trouble. Sure enough, Jimmie Lee gets to the Customs counter and 2 guards start going through his bags and grilling him. This goes on for about 15 minutes then the guards bring Jimmie Lee out, take him to an office with a third customs agent in the room, then they call me in. Jimmie Lee and I meet for the first time in person sitting at a desk beside each other with 3 Customs officials surrounding us. We greet each other, Jimmie Lee is crouched over shaking his head. They are not letting him come into Canada because of a 50 year old charge. This is a man that travels the world but the Customs Agents won’t let him in. We plead to no avail. They let Jimmie Lee and I go to the Airport coffee shop for 15 minutes. We talk. We say Hello Goodbye. We leave. They send Jimmie Lee back to the States. He has a stopover in Seattle Washington, across the U.S.A Canada border about 300 miles away for a 6 hour stopover to catch a flight to Chicago. We all go home very depressed. A couple hours later, we have had a few drinks, we are not wearing our cowboy hats anymore, the kids are off playing or something and then the phone rings in my house. It’s Jimmie Lee! Here is where I have to make the next part of the story a little murky. Well, Jimmie Lee does not want to go home. He wants to come back illegally across the border under his Muslim name and do the gigs. Arrangements are made. Jimmie Lee returns and secretly does the gigs. The Customs Agents find out and come to the second gig, bearing arms, to arrest Jimmie Lee. Jimmie Lee did the gigs but when the Customs Agents came to arrest him, he could not be found. This was in front of hundreds of people. The Customs Agents didn’t stick around too long. The next day Jimmie Lee was slated to play up in the mountains for a close group of our friends. Hidden from the public eye. He did. The next day Jimmie Lee got driven to the Alberta Montana border to go back to Chicago. The driver of the vehicle transporting Jimmie Lee to The Canada U.S.A. border hit 2 antelope, totaling the car about 10 miles before they could reach the border. No one was hurt, except the antelope. The driver, another passenger are now standing by the highway. They need a tow truck. Jimmie Lee needs to get to the U.S.A. Customs border crossing. A kind motorist stops on his way to work and gives Jimmie Lee a ride to The U.S. Customs border office then goes to his job directly across from the U.S. Customs. The building of course was Canada Customs. Jimmie Lee Robinson made it safely to U.S. customs and out of the the exact people that tried to arrest him 2 days earlier.

Ha! How is that for a story? Jimmie lee was something else! He got home safely and I kept promoting and working with more blues artists. About a year later I booked a gig for my band and Jimmie Lee at a festival in Canada. Jimmie was supposed to have cleaned up his Customs problems by then, but he had not. When he flew up and tried to cross the border this time, they busted him. He spent about a week in the Customs holding tank playing guitar and singing for the Customs people. They straightened the problems out and sent Jimmie Lee back to Chicago. He and I then started planning a Canadian tour, we talked on the phone. We had great plans. I never saw Jimmie Lee again. A couple of months later Jimmie Lee got nose cancer, took his own life and broke our hearts. Sad, very sad Indeed. When Jimmie Lee was in town he walked all over town with me. He had spurs on his Cowboy Boots. Yeh, Jimmie Lee was a trip. Very unique guy. We would have had so much fun but it was not meant to be.

"My musical philosophy is simple. It needs to be honest and therapeutic at the same time. I look at music as therapy. Without music in my life I would not fit in. I would not survive."

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Jazz, and continue to Flamenco and beyond?

Love and purity of soul. Innate compassion. A need to heal oneself. A need to heal others in this world of business and confusion. A need to play music for selfish and therapeutical reasons. Blind faith. A reason to live. A desire to fill the air with the beautiful sounds that turned oneself on in the first place. Heritage and tradition. A love for pure improvisation. Finding ones voice on this planet… Sharing… Brotherhood… Solace... Peace!

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

Perseverance against Adversity, Survival, Laughing just to keep from crying...Making joy from misery, Getting along with each other…

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

I would like to go to Mississippi in the mid to late 1930s and hang out with Honeyboy for a day and go to his gig in one of the Juke Joints he played and drive around in a Rocket 88 or a Terraplane car and visit with some of his friends like Charlie Patton, Tommy Mclennan, Robert Johnson or Sonny Boy Williamson. I like this time frame because this is when the Blues people were young and strong and swathing the path with their machetes for all of the future generations. Or I would like to be in Chicago when Big Bill Broonzy played the clubs. Or in Paris in the 30s hanging out with Django Reinhardt and all his friends. Or in a smoky club digging Wes Montgomery.

Les Copeland - Official website

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