In light of the reissue and reassessment campaigns that have been mounted for artists like Betty Davis, it’s kind of strange to me that no one has thought to do the same for Ruth Copeland.
An English lady with ‘North Sea wildness in her bones’ (her words) Ruth apparently pursued a music career after her mother died, and made her way across the Atlantic in the swinging sixties to Detroit, the Motor City, because she had a sister or brother living there.
(The details on Ruth are pretty hard to come by online, with some speculating she didn’t write her songs.)
She gigged for a while and managed to release a single on Carla Records, albeit under the name Kelly Michaels. This is the b-side, which was produced by label-owner Ollie McLaughlin:
Pretty good, right?
Well, Ruth’s story gets infinitely more interesting from there.
She met and married Jeffrey Bowen, a song writer and producer who worked with Motown and with Holland-Dozier-Holland when they set up their Invictus record label, and Ruth, as a member of a group called The New Play, became one of the new label’s first artists.
The single flopped, but by now, Ruth was starting to write songs with writers and artists based at Invictus, including Edith Wayne, Ron Dunbar, and George Clinton.
She apparently got a crack at writing the lyrics for Band of Gold, but they were rejected because, from what I read, she chose to write about missing a dog, or something like that.
Copeland had a couple of credits on Parliament’s only Invictus album, Osmium (Little Old Country Boy and The Silent Boatman), and also contributed to a couple of single releases–Breakdown and Come in Out of the Rain.
She also made two albums for Invictus, Self Portrait, which is about as weird an album as you will ever hear, and I Am What I Am, which is the one that deserves a proper reissue for several reasons, chiefly the songs and her vocals but she also had a great band backing her up: Billy Nelson, Eddie Hazel, Tiki Fulwood and Bernie Worrell.
There were other musicians contributing, but with a band like that, you pretty much know what you are in for.
And that Funkadelic vibe runs all through the album, from the high wire drama of the dramatic reinterpretation of the Rolling Stones’ Play With Fire to this, the grubby stumble funk of Don’t You Wish You Had (What You Had When You Had It):
There were rumors online on one blog that Ruth had been considered for some kind of abandoned Janis Joplin biopic, and, if true, you can kind of hear why in her impassioned delivery, which is just as big and bold as Janis, but with less grit.
Such is her force and her fire that only a band like Funkadelic could go toe to toe for her for intensity, and Eddie delivers some truly corrosive soloing midway through the song that makes it sound like he just wants to torch the whole thing.
But by the time this was released, Ruth had apparently relocated to LA to live with Sly Stone, this despite the fact he had nearly tossed Ruth and Funkadelic off a tour as support act for upstaging him.
Some of this she related in an interview with Mojo Magazine a few years ago, but I do not have access to it.
Suffice to say she was apparently prevented from recording for a few years, re-emerging in 1976 with Take Me To Baltimore on RCA, where Daryl Hall sat in as producer (he also contributed to a couple of songs).
Despite a couple of CD reissues of her Invictus albums in the past decade, and that Mojo interview, somehow Ruth continues to fly under the radar, which is a shame, considering how great I Am What I Am is.
Ruth apparently is retired from a career with a construction related publishing company.
I wonder if she ever wishes she had what she had when she had it…