One recent Friday, the Chicago blues singer Shemekia Copeland worked the room at Buddy Guy’s Legends in the South Loop. She greeted staff with warm hugs and exchanged Southern cooking tips with Guy, who was seated at his customary corner of the main bar. Copeland wasn’t there to perform—she’d been too busy gearing up for the September 25 release of her new record, 33⅓ (Telarc), to take gigs. Instead, she relaxed at a table as the headliner, John Primer, the guitarist in Muddy Waters’s last band, ripped through “Hoochie Coochie Man” with the kind of stinging guitar licks that are instantly recognizable as the classic Chicago blues sound.
“I love the consistency of Chicago blues. It feels like home,” said Copeland, who lives in Beverly with her husband, Orlando Wright, the bass player in Guy’s band. “But it also makes me a little sad, because tourists expect blues to sound like this, and it’s not the full aspect of what’s going on.”
It’s no secret that, despite attendance of 500,000 at this summer’s Chicago Blues Festival, the genre has been in poor health in recent years. Blues albums account for a paltry number of all record sales, and in 2009 the San Francisco Blues Festival, the oldest of its kind, was discontinued after 36 years because of financial problems, reflecting an overall decline in such events nationwide. And while the Legends staff all recognized Copeland, a lively 33-year-old with a big, blasting alto, the patrons were too busy shooting pool and munching on soul food to acknowledge that one of the genre’s torchbearers was in their midst.
Copeland was born into the blues: Her father was the singer and guitarist Johnny Copeland. He raised his daughter in Harlem, and by the time he died in 1997, Shemekia already had frequent gigs at a club on the outskirts of Greenwich Village. Word of the young woman with a take-no-prisoners voice soon reached Bruce Iglauer, owner of the Chicago blues label Alligator Records, which released her debut record when she was 19.
Over the last decade, Copeland has grown from a powerhouse blues shouter to a nuanced singer whose songs tackle the typical blues tropes—love gone wrong, economic woes—from the perspective of an empowered contemporary woman. Her new album is a supple, urbane mix of tracks with elements of soul, funk, jazz, and rock folded into a classic blues structure. “At first, I wanted to sing like a man, anyone who was hard and rough. That’s why I loved Koko [Taylor, the late Chicago blues luminary] so,” Copeland says. “Now I’m embracing my feminine side. I’m learning you can move people with subtleties.”
“[Shemekia is becoming] more of a hope than I think she ever wanted to be, but she’s doing a really nice job with it,” says Dick Shurman, a blues record producer. “It is important to have people like her who are part of the heritage and embrace it but try to keep their music fresh and accessible.”
At last year’s fest, Cookie Taylor appeared onstage and bestowed upon Copeland her mother’s honorific title, Queen of the Blues, and signature tiara. Earlier this year, Copeland performed for the Obamas as part of an all-star blues roster that included Guy, B. B. King, and Mick Jagger—who gave Copeland a bottle of Champagne after she sang backup vocals on “Miss You.”
“I don’t think being called a blues singer limits me. It means telling a story,” Copeland says. “I’m going to keep doing that, and I know as long as I’m doing it, the music will live.”
HEAR HER LIVE: Copeland performs at City Winery on Oct. 12. 1200 W. Randolph St., citywinery.com/chicago
Photograph: Jeff Sciortino; Hair and Makeup: Nicole Cap; Location: Chicago recording company