Picks and Pans Review: Spotlight On...
HEART FULL OF SOUL
WHEN HE WAS 9 YEARS OLD, Johnny "Clyde" Copeland carried his first guitar out into the vast Arkansas fields where his family farmed and taught himself to play the blues. Fifty years later, Copeland, now a Grammy-winning guitarist and singer, is still playing his emotive, Texas-style country blues. But whenever the itinerant, New Jersey-based musician performs these days, it is to an unusual accompaniment: the pulse of a battery-powered pump implanted in his chest. "I don't feel bad at all onstage," says Copeland, 59, who wears a gray fanny pack holding the two rechargeable batteries that power his pump. "It energizes me in some kind of way."
Copeland became a candidate for an organ transplant in May 1995, when his heart was irreparably weakened after a series of heart attacks. "We couldn't get a heart in time to keep him alive," says Dr. Mehmet Oz, 36, a surgeon at New York's Columbia Presbyterian hospital, where Copeland underwent emergency open-heart surgery to implant the pump. Without the device, says Oz, "Mr. Copeland would have been a ghost."
Yet within four months after the operation, he was back performing in blues clubs and music festivals, most recently at the Long Beach (Calif.) Blues Festival. And in July, Copeland—who won a 1986 Grammy for his blues guitar duel with Albert Collins and Robert Cray on Showdown!—released Jungle Swing (Verve), a collection including mostly his own tunes. As he waits for the beep that will summon him to the hospital when a suitable heart donor is found, the singer says he never anticipated the pump's most unwelcome side effect: it throws his timing off when he tries to write a new song. Otherwise "my illness hasn't really affected my music," says Copeland, who began his career in the 1950s touring Texas with Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, originator of the classic "Hound Dog." He credits her with teaching him his creed. "The blues is still the same," he says, hand over his heart. "The feeling is still in here."