Artist Spotlight  
Al Copley
By Robert John, correspondent to
© 2005 - All Rights Reserved

Al Copley. Pianist, singer, arranger and performer extraordinaire.

When we listen to Al Copley, the thing that stikes us most is the feeling of joy that is carried through his music. Music that makes a listener feel good. And that's a good thing.

Aside from bringing joy to his

listeners, Al is also enjoying a pretty impressive career. A co-founder and member of "Roomful of Blues" for 16 years, Al has since recorded with Lou Rawls, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Big Joe Turner, Duke Robillard, Greg Piccolo and others.

He's also performed with the original Blues Brothers, 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.

Barrelhouse Blues ("BB") is pleased to present this talented performer in our Artist Spotight. Read on to get a glimpse into the man and his music...

BB: How did you get started playing the piano?

AC: At the age of seven, my family moved from Palo Alto, California to Westerly, Rhode Island. There had been lots of kids in California, and in Rhode Island there were only a couple nearby who lived miles away, and I think they wanted to keep my sister and I out of trouble by giving us piano lessons. And yes, I had already shown a marked interest in Music.

So I took classical lessons through high school, then went to my teacher's teacher in New Haven and on to the Berklee College of Music between 1971-1973. But Roomful had gotten into gear by that time and I quit school even though I was on the Dean's List to ride the wave.

BB: What was it about Blues & swing music that drew you to it?

AC: As a teenager, I was into the British Wave - Animals, Beatles and Stones - and I got interested in seeing who wrote the songs. It took me a while to figure out that McKinley Morganfield was Muddy Waters and Chester Burnett was Howling Wolf, but man, once I did, I dropped everything else to dig the Real Stuff.

From Muddy, I got into Otis Spann, the total Chicago Blues Scene of the 60's, then Memphis Slim, and before long I was into KC boogie-woogie, Pete Johnson, etc. Naturally I got into Basie, Jay McShann, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Duke Ellington, the other New York bands (Lunceford, Cab, Chick Webb), and all the way back to Jelly Roll Morton and the New Orleans beginnings.

In 1970 Duke Robillard and I took a road trip out to the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Fest, and there we heard Big Joe Turner, Jr., Parker and Eddie Cleanhead Vinson for the first time. They were backed by Mighty Joe Young's B.B. King-style band. That was the real mindblower for me - I had been into Oscar Peterson and Barrelhouse Buck and never knew there was all this intelligent AND soulful stuff in between. We went right back to Rhode Island and added horns to our Chicage blues band.

BB: How did the formation of Roomful of Blues come about?

AC: In 1968, the Newport Folk Festival had an open mike afternoon, and a guy from Westerly, Rhode Island (Dave Turano) had suggested to Duke Robillard to put together an allstar blues band from that town. So he asked me, Larry Peduzzi, Tony Lamb, Fred Jackson, George Peterle and Chuck Riggs to put together a band. We never did the gig in Newport but a band had been started.

That group really was a collective thing - each one brought something into it. I handled arrangements, so was ready to add the horns later, Duke picked the tunes, another guy had a van and a place to practice, etc.

BB: Are the audiences in Europe much different than in the U.S.?

AC: My experience has lead me to tell my American musicians that European's don't twig the nuances of the language, but it seems they do read feelings intuitively. In fact, because of that, they seem to hear and read messages that we may not be aware of, or may be trying to hide. They appreciate the sincerity of the performance and they don't go for everything. Americans are open to almost anything, so the music develops more easily.

I'd simplify it by saying that in general it seems Americans are more innovative, but the Europeans decide what's good and lasting. Please understand, though, that it's just not possible nor wise to make such sweeping generalities as these to be taken as hard, fast truth. Every audience is important - the only important gig is the one tonight.

BB: You’ve opened for and played with many notable artists over the years. If you could share a stage with someone you haven’t yet performed with, who would it be?

AC: Roomful opened for the Stray Cats in 1983, but I'd still love to share a stage nowadays with Brian Setzer. He seems to LOVE Music like I do and like Jeff Healey or Kim Wilson.

BB: What changes have you noticed over the years in terms of audiences, venues and the industry?

AC: That's a loaded question! Things have changed and nothing's changed. When I grew up, we all played live almost all of the time. That's where the seasoned performers of today came from. Today, I look for places where a kid can get out there and learn his craft through experience and it's just not there like before. Maybe the problems of today will give way to the answers of tomorrow somehow, someway.

Artists are still having trouble with appropriate recognition. Instead of being taken in by some unscrupulous ethical practices within the record business, now "ripping" and "burning" are bona fide terms... I remain, nevertheless, optimistic that the Internet will become ultimately the fairest and most direct method for sales, once all that's sorted out.

It comes down to the individual's point of view. Do you think it's better to support an artist directly by buying a disc from him, or do you think you're doing him a favor by making and giving away copies?

BB: How would you describe the changes in your own music over that same period?

AC: I make music that sounds good to me. I listen from the inside out. So I would say my approach has been one of staying true to my musical standards. It makes no sense to try to massage my ideals to try to make sales. What you hear from me is music as I hear it.

BB: What is your opinion on the present “state-of-the-Blues?”

AC: Blues is the true American folklore of music. It always has flowed from one idea to the next. I am a little wary of the educated desire to historify it, because for instance, neither Pete Johnson nor Professor Longhair would have insisted that their pieces be played exactly the same way forever. I am thoroughly grateful to the record industry for having left us so many wonderful records, and I appreciate that each one of those records are a spontaneous "present-tense" experience.

So whatever is happening in the Now is great to me. I don't need copycats.

BB: What are the challenges and rewards of playing Blues and R&B in today’s market?

AC: I get weary thinking about "today's market." I'm happy to play music as honestly as I know how. The best record to me is the one that will still be relevant and be able communicate to the human soul 50 years from now. The timelessness of it is the art.

BB: What are some of the musical highlights of your career thus far?

AC: To me, meeting and talking with folks like Count Basie, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Professor Longhair, "Big" Joe Turner, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and Roy Brown stand out. The most wonderful event for me was playing with my band and the Boston Festival Orchestra in 2002. I was tickled to have Porky Cohen onboard to play my own orchestration of "What a Wonderful World." That was the last time we played together, and it was for over 26,000 people.

Of course, there are so many wonderful moments that have no relation to place, time or people, but it was when we all kind of lost ourselves in that flow and heard things we didn't know we could do. There was one just a couple of nights ago, here in Bern, Switzerland - the last, last set on New Years Eve, when none of us felt we had a single new idea left to play, but holy cow, it just went to another dimension of harmony, and all based on the blues.

BB: What’s been your most memorable experience as a performer?

AC: I just described it - whenever "Al" got out the the way enough to feel so clearly that musicians don't make music, music makes musicians. And this has been happening all along.

BB: What’s next for Al Copley?

AC: The latest recording session was this past summer, and I'm looking forward to getting it out. There are quite a few original tunes on it, it has a terrific 5-piece horn section on it, and well, what can I say more than to say I hope you give it a good listen.

BB: What would you like your fans to know most about you and your music?

AC: Big Joe Turner once said, "Don't the Blues make you feel so happy?" I didn't understand that when I was a kid, but I have understood it now for a long time. It means something like "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." The Blues may leave us without a human solution visible, but Life is life anyway. There always is a new step to take, and after enough experiences I've learned that it's always possible to go ahead on, and give up a worn-out pair of mental shoes and see what's coming up here.

Kids just play -- they don't care about the psychological implications of it on their ego postures. I'm still enjoying the fun of it. To quote Shakespeare, "The play's the thing."

Love is truly the only thing of importance.

All the VERY BEST,

Al Copley

© 2005 - All Rights Reserved

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