She might be the most influential musician to come from the town, but very little is known about her. A chance play on BBC Six Music got me trawling the internet to find out more about Consett’s forgotten Queen of Funk.
The contrast between the place she grew up in and Ruth Copeland’s musical career could not be greater. But the incredible story that took a young woman from a college band and a temp job in Consett Iron Company’s Despatch department to playing with some of the greatest musicians, producers and songwriters at the height of their powers in the home of Motown is an incredible tale of talent, struggle, pain and a few moments of brilliance.
Search the internet and you will find few references to Ruth Copeland, and most of them repeat the same facts. Wikipedia tells you that she released three albums – two in 1970/71 that were well received, and a third in 1976 that wasn’t – that she married her producer who had recently defected from Motown records to a new label named Invictus, and that she collaborated with music legend George Clinton on some influential psychedelic soul-funk recordings.
There are hints that Ruth wasn’t responsible for the work credited to her, but merely that her husband-producer Jeffrey Bowen used her name because he was in legal dispute with Motown.
She is somewhat overlooked among the women who contributed to the work of Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic because of her skin colour; little white Miss Copeland didn’t fit into the booty-shaking black power emancipation of Parliament-Funkadelic’s ‘she-funk’ as it developed in the 1970s.
Most of all, she comes across as a woman adrift in a man’s cutthroat musical world of contracts, lawyers and snide rock journalists, and – far from her home and family – had to shout up for her talent to be heard.
But 45 years or so later, her musical legacy seems to be becoming more and more valued and respected. However, the story begins in Consett.
Ruth Copeland was born around 1946 and grew up in Rosedale Avenue, Blackhill, the street which became known as ‘the street of the stars’ to local reporters because it was home not only to Ruth, but also to Freddie Cheeseman – Freddie ‘Fingers’ Lee in Screaming Lord Sutch’s band – and jockey Davy Maitland, who won the Royal Hunt Cup, one of the three perpetual trophies at Ascot, in 1975.
Ruth went to Benfieldside Juniors and later Consett Grammar school. Her father Norman Copeland was a foreman in charge of maintenance in the melting shop at Consett Iron Company, where her brother Peter also worked. In a quirk of fate, Peter Copeland married an American girl and moved to Detroit, where Ruth would later follow him.
In December 1963, Ruth sang in front of 350 students with The Collegians, Consett Technical College’s newly-formed jazz band, at their first performance. Within ten days, on Boxing Day 1963, they had made their début in Newcastle. The band received several bookings as a result and planned a summer tour of Scandinavia the following year.
At the same time, Ruth worked at Consett Iron Company in jobs possibly associated with her Consett Tech studies – in Despatch and in the Plate Sales Department. After work, she and her co-workers would pile into the back of the mail van and go to Consett town centre where Ruth would sing. Friends remember her talent and bubbly character and her “deep husky voice”. She made no bones about her ambitions to be a singer, and most were convinced she would make it.
Around this time, Ruth’s mother died suddenly and she dropped out of the Tech. She left Consett to pursue a singing career, first in Blackpool and later in London with Ed & the Intruders, where she attracted the attention of fans and music producers, not just with her surprisingly powerful voice, but also her striking looks.
Two labels ended up slugging it out for her signature. They were both newly formed and looking for talent that would go along with their trendy reputations: the Beatles’ recently formed label Apple; and Invictus, based in Detroit, USA.
Because of her brother Peter living in Detroit, it seems, Ruth signed for Invictus. The girl from Consett would be among the first recording artists on the new label, which had been set up by legendary songwriters Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, who had recently left Motown.
By 1967, aged 21, Ruth was established in Detroit, working as a comptometer operator by day and presumably dedicating herself to her musical career after work. (The comptometer was the first commercially successful key-driven mechanical calculator.)
Around Christmas 1967, Ruth married Karl Sweetan, a reserve quarterback for the Detroit Lions American football team. Although he never made a big impact in the sport, his claim to fame is to have equaled the record (99 yds) for the longest successful touchdown pass.
However, married life with Sweetan may well have turned sour for Ruth quite early on. A newspaper report in the Chicago Tribune in November 1967 – only a month before the report of their impending nuptials – describes how Ruth had to call the police when 25-year-old Sweetan smashed a door to get into her apartment after her flatmate refused him entry. The sportsman needed six stitches in a gash, fortunately for him in his non-throwing arm.
Some time between 1967 and 1969 Ruth met Jeffrey Bowen, who had defected from Motown along with Holland, Dozier and Holland. He took an interest in her music – and in the singer herself. It was the final connection needed to launch her professional career.
Billed as The New Play Starring Ruth Copeland, Ruth’s newly-signed group released “The Music Box” / “A Gift Of Me” in 1969. Both songs were jointly written by the trio, and experimental even at this early stage. Ruth contributed what one reviewer later called a ‘crying solo’ to Music Box.
The single failed to make an impact, however, and the group soon disbanded, but by then her working relationship with Bowen had become something more personal and they were married.
Through Bowen, Ruth got to know George Clinton, who was also signed to the label with his band Parliament. Incredibly for Ruth – white, a woman and only 23 years old – she co-produced the group’s album, Osmium, with Clinton, and wrote two of the album’s tracks: ‘Little Old Country Boy’ and ‘The Silent Boatman’.
A brief aside for those not deeply steeped in the history of American psychedelic funk: Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic (or P-Funk) ‘collective’ came about when his original doo wop band The Parliaments took on a more soul-funk sound, through the younger musicians Clinton brought in to back the vocal band. Contractually banned from using the name Parliament for a while, Clinton signed the whole group to a different label under the name Funkadelic. When the Parliament name became legally available again, the two acts carried on simultaneously.
As Wikipedia points out laconically, the tracks Ruth wrote for Osmium “are unusual in Parliament-Funkadelic’s catalogue, and show the influence of Copeland’s interest in country and British folk music.”
Ruth’s contributions are more than ‘unusual’. The Silent Boatman is a funk song, but with an interlude of bagpipes playing the Skye Boat Song, and Little Old Country Boy sounds like twanging bluegrass as if it had been played by Stevie Wonder.
Ruth wrote two further singles for Parliament, ‘Come In Out of the Rain’ and ‘Breakdown’.
With The New Play consigned to history, Ruth began putting together a solo album. Self Portrait, released in October 1971, featured not only nine original compositions, but also an original self-portrait on the cover. Ruth played acoustic guitar and sang on all tracks, and the album also featured contributions from a range of Parliament-Funkadelic musicians, including Clinton.
It also includes her solo version of The Silent Boatman, but the bagpipes were replaced by church organ. Never afraid to experiment musically, Ruth chose the opera aria Un Bel Di from Madame Butterfly as the tenth track on the record.
The opening track Prologue: Child of the North, a monologue, is wistfully autobiographical. In it, Ruth mentions the “swaying meadows of Durham” and running “through wild hills with my dog” and wondering how she would be accepted if she ever went back.
Ruth’s second album, I Am What I Am, again featuring a range of Parliament-Funkadelic musicians, came out in July 1971. Several who had recently left Funkadelic for financial reasons continued to tour with Ruth as her backing band.
Unfortunately, while on tour supporting Sly and the Family Stone, Ruth took to introducing them as Funkadelic, something which didn’t go down well with the headliner, who saw them as rivals and kicked them off the tour.
One of the greatest, most understated and criminally overlooked musical divas in history
I Am What I Am had the same eclectic mix of genres and the theme of woman’s strength under duress as Self Portrait. Don’t You Wish You Had (What You Had When You Had It) is a storming funk-rock showstopper that shows off Ruth’s vocal agility, soaring and screaming, harsh and tender, confessional and confrontational. If all-girl punk group The Slits had released it ten years later, they would have had a huge hit.
Ruth wrote or co-wrote five of the seven tracks on I Am What I Am and it also features two Rolling Stones’ covers: Play with Fire comes across as both funky and menacing, and Gimme Shelter sounds like what the Stones’ version would have been if they had turned Mick Jagger down and left the singing to backing vocalist Merry Clayton. (Except that Clayton released her own version and it sounds nowhere as good as Ruth’s.)
As producer of both albums, Ruth was not afraid to make the most of her own voice as an instrument in the mix. She has been bracketed with every female singer from Janis Joplin to Joni Mitchell, to Julie Driscoll, to Grace Slick, even to Olivia Newton-John, and she has elements of them all, but it’s her ability to complement the instrumentation that works best – soft when they are hard, loud when they are quiet, riding the stampede or cutting through like a bird of prey.
Musically, 1972 was the peak for Ruth. She was now divorced from Bowen and her musical output dried up. Possibly she was at loggerheads with the label and was waiting for her contract to lapse, while they tried to starve her into submission.
On September 28, 1972, Ruth was the support act for David Bowie at Carnegie Hall, New York. Unfortunately, the hype that surrounded Bowie meant that many of the crowd preferred to wait outside or in the lobby during the opening set to see if they could catch a glimpse of him, his assorted entourage or celebrity fans like Andy Warhol.
Ruth toured off and on during the next four years and then released her third and final album Take Me To Baltimore in 1976. It was produced by Darryl Hall of Hall & Oates, who also co-wrote one of the tracks. Unfortunately the singer’s five years out of the marketplace had its effect on the sales of the record, and, although Ruth did receive the freedom of the city of Baltimore, the album fared badly and is currently out of print.
Guitarist Rhett Taylor played on the album. In an online interview, he said: “I became her band leader after she left Parliament-Funkadelic. She was treated very badly by the industry because the industry is a bunch of rock and roll punks that want to control women … We had a really good relationship, [but] I had to leave because we were about to do an album … I had written most of the material with her, but alcoholism took her over, and I had to leave.”
Even though Ruth’s Parliament-Funkadelic backing band was no longer involved, there must have been some residual good feeling. Scottish singer/composer Jesse Rae also took part in the recording of Take Me To Baltimore thanks to a tip-off from Ruth’s erstwhile keyboard player.
Also in an online interview, Jesse Rae said: “I met Bernie Worrell by bumping into him in the lift of a Holiday Inn in Boston. We exchanged cassettes and hit it off straight away … He told me that this lassie Ruth Copeland was looking for band members or writers … I wrote ‘Win Or Lose’ for her album and did the backing vocals with Daryl Hall. She was a wild woman but very passionate about her music and a talented writer.”
So what happened next? Wikipedia has one line to cover the next 39 years: “Worked for The Blue Book Building & Construction Network where she retired.” The Blue Book Building & Construction Network is the information directory for the American construction industry.
In the last 20 years Ruth Copeland’s music has been sampled by The Go! Team, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and many others. As recently as last year, her version of Gimme Shelter was released in re-edited form.
Music fans – especially those who love funk – are beginning to find a place for Ruth in the official histories, and mourn what one has described as “a much lauded but ultimately unfulfilled career.”
If you look hard enough, the internet yields lines like this: “a smoulderingly sexy version of Play with Fire”; “her Gimme Shelter is an epic tour-de-force of funk”; “Most intense and quite unique”; “Ruth Copeland clearly condensed all 20-odd years of her life into ‘Self Portrait’ — it’s phenomenal.” And: “One of the greatest, most understated and criminally overlooked musical divas in history was British-born Ruth Copeland.”
But the main questions about Ruth that remain unanswered: Is she singing? Is she happy?
One of her friends recently posted on Facebook that Ruth – now aged approximately 68 – still occasionally does write songs with guitar or piano but only in the house.
Let’s hope she’s happy with her life and legacy.
Thanks to the Consett & District Heritage Initiative Facebook page for so much help with information. Some of this article is conjecture and it would be great to check the facts with the only person who can really vouch for them, Ruth Copeland herself.
Also published on The Works, Consett