Friday, January 28, 2011

Women's Work Week-The First Lady of P(re)-Funk: Ruth Copeland

In 2008 a wide swath (well, 58% of registered voters) of Americans elected Barack Obama president, in a campaign that promised change...A main component of that change was to be health care reform that increased the number of folks with medical insurance and made other consumer-centric changes in the system, which an even larger percentage of Americans said was broken. After being elected, Mr. Obama went right to work on this reform, and despite stiff resistance, got it passed. In 2010, Republicans made huge gains in the Congress, Senate, and Governerships, by essentially running on change, with the symbol of the change being the repeal of the health care reform that had just passed. Are we spinning our wheels here?

You are probably asking what the heck this has to do with British-born, folk-soul-rock-funk, singer/songwriter/producer Ruth Copeland.  Probably not much, but I will say, that what passes for change nowadays doesn't seem to compare with the changes that were happening when Ruth first arrived in America around 1967. Additionally, the seismic cultural shifts going on in the US at the time, seem to follow Ruth's career arc rather nicely. Of course, I could be totally wrong, 'cause change is not so easy to come by. At any rate, I'd like to start off with this tune Ruth Copeland wrote (and received production credit for), that was an unused master from the sessions that yielded Parliament's 1970 debut LP, Osmium.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here, by dropping this '72 single, so let me rewind a bit. As a fairly huge (emotionally and physically) P-Funk fan, I've always wondered about Ruth Copeland. How did this British woman come to be involved with George Clinton?

How did a band that almost never worked with material that didn't come from within their (ever-growing) inner circle, come to cut tracks with this woman, who, at the time, might have been all of 22 years old.  Record labels  and questions were pretty much all I had at the start, but in the past few days I've come to find out a lot more.  In the final analysis, I've got to say that Ruth was definitely of her time, and maybe a little bit ahead of it (something I've always thought about Mr. George Clinton.) To be doing what she was doing, when she was doing it, puts her right up there with Betty Davis, as a unique voice at the dawn of funk.  Whether she was just in the right place at the right time (she was), or whether she had some great in's to the record business (she did), or whether she was just doing what she thought she had to do to make it in a business dominated by men, Ms. Copeland got it done.

Unfortunately, I do not have what might be the definitive release of Ruth's work with George: 2002's The Complete Invictus Sessions, but judging from the liner notes of various versions of Osmium, other P-Funk history, and the scant amount of info for Ruth on the web, it wouldn't help.  The hook in most entries on Ruth Copeland is British roots, her association with George Clinton and Funkadelic, and her relationship with record producer/businessman Jeffrey Bowen. There is an undercurrent of sexism throughout these entries. One liner note (First Thangs/Lee Hildebrand), does not mention Ruth Copeland at all, even though she wrote or co-wrote and produced or coproduced nearly half the tracks Parliament cut for the Invictus label, not to mention that she sang on a couple of tracks.

The 2001 reissue of Osmium (notes by Peter Doggett, explains Ruth's participation as a deal George Clinton did with Jeffery Bowen to give Ruth credits in exchange for his working on George's record.  Bowen had been a staff producer at Motown (the notes say he was currently a Motown "staffer") and would eventually become Ruth Copeland's husband and manager. He left Berry Gordy with Holland-Dozier-Holland when they started Invictus two years prior, around 1968/9. I know this is all nit-picking and there probably are a few grains of truth to the idea that Mr. Bowen was trying to help Ruth out (and perhaps something more personal), but the dismissal by Mr. Doggett in the notes leaves a lot to be desired.

Nowhere, do I find an instance of George Clinton ever mentioning Ruth Copeland. Funnily enough, in my two main Ruth Copeland sources (Rolling Stone articles from 1971 and 1976), George Clinton and/or Funkadelic are never mentioned either. That is very strange for '71, since a huge chunk of her backing band were FUNKADELIC.  Money issues between George and the youngsters (the guys in Parliament [vocalists] were older than the guys in the band) saw them walk out on him at various times from '70 to '71, for various reasons, including becoming Ruth's touring band. Do the 30,000 word liner notes in the 2 disc Funkadelic Singles collection by Rob Bowman mention this...nope.

The additional Parliament songs Ruth Copeland was involved in 70-72.

Oh Lord Why Lord/Prayer

The Silent Boatman

So was Osmium the record George wanted to make? Or was Funkadelic (the Westbound debut), his vision?  Judging from what came later..these were both transitional debut records with Osmium the more experimental (and a little disjointed) of the two. One thing is for sure, George Clinton and his band were no longer a slick dressing soul group patterned after the Temptations, but a pscyhedelicized, highly volitile, funk/rock band. After a decade of kicking around the fringes of the music biz and tasting a little success, George Clinton, his band, and their split personalities, finally had their first long players. George Clinton was right around 30 years old.

Ruth Copeland's first LP, Self Portrait, arrived in shops just a few weeks after Osmium.  Ruth was about 20 years old. Her path to debut vinyl was a little more straight forward, but convoluted nonetheless. Pieced together from the Rolling Stone articles, it looks a little like this:
  • She was born in Consett, England (a country town near Newcastle) sometime around 1950 to lower middle class parents.
  • When she was 16, she was an art student, who broke off her schooling to move to London following the sudden death of her mother.
  • She gigged in London with a band called Ed & The Intruders (zero info found on them), her sister moved to Detroit (don't know why), she was "discovered" by Allen Klein (Beatles,Stones),and she received contract offers with Apple and Invictus Records. She chose Invictus, perhaps because her sister was where the label was based, and was signed by Jeffrey Bowen in 1968.
  • She arrived in Detroit when she was 18, dated, became pregnant, and wed (apparently in 1970) an unnamed Detroit Lion. It is interesting to note that on her first album there's a song , "No Commitment" about the a relationship that ended after the birth of a child.  It is unclear whether she had an abortion, or not. There's also a tune called, "To William In The Night." A look at the 1968 Detroit Lions Roster shows 3 Williams (QB Bill Munson, Tackle Bill Cotrell, and RB Billy Tripplett), but no further info is available...including when she might have gotten a divorce. Many articles and bios, say that she came to Invictus after her marriage to Jeffrey Bowen, but that is not the case. She couldn't have married him until 70/71 (at least according to things she said in interviews).
  • She was originally slated to be the leader of a female singing group, New Play, who made 1 single that was never released. Instead, she worked with George Clinton on her debut. LP.

Self Portrait (the cover is a self portrait..I wonder where that idea came from?) is, like Osmium, all over the stylistic map, mixing baroque folk confessions, Motown pop,opera covers, and harder blues rock. To be honest, it ain't perfect. Her voice, when not in rock mode, is an acquired taste. The lyrics are a little forced, too.

For historical purposes mostly (especially the Eddie Hazel solo on the album closing opera tune) Self Portrait..

From a Ruth perspective, she she got to make the record she wanted to make as a 20 year old music biz neophyte.  From a Funkadelic perspective, this was more of a session gig.  Bernie Worrell, Tawl Ross, Billy Nelson,Tiki Fulwood, and Eddie Hazel, were playing on many Invictus sessions, as Holland -Dozier-Holland were trying to create an assembly line set up similar to what was going on at Motown. For George, who was figuring his way through the system, it was an opportunity.  My opinion is that George, Ruth, and the band were all bristling at the control of the old school studio system, but there were other factors at work, including the fact that Jeffrey Bowen was falling for Ruth, becoming deeply involved with her career as her manager, mentor, and within a year, her husband.
No Commitment

Music Box

Reviews for Ruth's record were not spectacular (nor for Osmium) and sales weren't particularly brisk either. George Clinton was also forced to stop using the name Parliament (no one seems to have a definitive answer why), Funkadelics were defecting left and right, and general craziness reigned in Detroit. Despite all this the wheels of the record biz continued to turn. At some point in '71 Ruth Copeland was asked to join the Sly Stone tour as an opening act for the Family Stone and Rare Earth. Funkadelic was backing her on the tour and helping her make her second album.  According to Ruth, she was eventually kicked off the tour because of Sly's jealousy, and the fact that Funkadelic were blowing the doors off as an opener. That did not stop Sly from inviting her out to LA to live with him after the tour help her with her career. So, theoretically, during 71 -72, she married Jeffrey Bowen, went on tour with Sly, made a second album, left Bowen and Invictus (with a 3 year, you-can-make-no-recordings clause in her contract), and ultimately moved in with Sly Stone for a year.
I Am What I Am is far superior to her debut, much more focused on the rock funk sound and less loose lyrically. It also sounded like a band album, as opposed to session cats backing a studio singer, which makes sense, since she was hanging with the Funkadelic guys for almost a year.

I Am What I Am...

Most nights on tour, Ruth wore a variation of the Native American themed outfit she had on for the cover of her second album, and in the '71 Rolling Stone interview she talks about getting tired of her image, getting tired of the opening slot, and says nothing about her band (Dammit, no one ever thinks of my needs).  A big chunk of the piece talks about her perfect belly button  and, "how a lot of her acceptance doubtless came from her singular beauty, but now she has to transcend it, and somehow find an approach which will put her music across." Oy vey, thanks Rolling Stone (Timothy Ferris).

Suburban Family Lament

Play With Fire

The Medal

I Am What I Am wasn't released until '72, but it seems like Ruth had left Detroit for good well before that, and was allegedly living with Sly Stone. The difference between her first records is stark: moving away from the direct confessional toward anti-war messages and social commentary. Over the top, sure,but manna for P-Funk fans and a good recap of attitudes at the end of the 60's, and the coming malaise of the 70's.

Ruth's malaise was also a product of her Invictus contract that prevented her from recording until '75 and perhaps her relationship with Sly Stone, "So I came out to the West Coast and what it was was that he wanted me," said Ruth in a '76 interview that just happened to coincide with the release of her comeback record, Take Me To Baltimore.  She goes on to say, "and I fell in love with him." They did some tracks together (they remain unreleased), but he didn't let her perform. Ruth cites Sly's "insecurity, that's probably the only reason anybody wouldn't want their partner to fulfill themselves. I just knew it was wrong, and that's when I started to grow away from him." Evidently the reason why Sly's Fresh took so long to come out had a little to do with Ruth Copeland . Ruth headed East to New York (and by her admission rock bottom), where she was coaxed back to perform in 1974, at a radio station gig in Baltimore, by Badfinger member Peter Ham, she and him having been voted favorite male and female vocalists by a radio station there. She also mentions in the article that she was just about to audition for the role of Janis Joplin in fictional version of the rock icon's life called, Pearl. I'm pretty sure that movie was never made.


So with things looking up, she met Daryl Hall, who helped her get a deal with RCA and wrote and sang the single, "Heaven" with her.  The album as a whole has none of the rough edges of the Invictus material, reflecting the light funk (with a few guitar flourishes), smooth R&B, and disco that was considered radio worthy in 1976.  There's an outside producer (Ralph Moss), many strings, and a general reserve over these proceedings. It isn't a bad record, but it makes you appreciate the abandon of the Invictus sides.

Take Me to Baltimore...

A lot of folks got a chance to see Ruth perform around this time, and the one's I've heard from still remember the shows as some of the best they've ever seen.  According to the '76 article she was starting a production company and swearing to "never let herself be dragged around by a man again." Sadly though, after the tour that came with Baltimore, there is absolutely nothing out there about Ruth Copeland. There aren't too many folks who did as much as she did in those 10 years (and for 2 or 3 of them she was just chilling)..quite a run for a young lass from Consett.

On the tune, "Some Hearts Need To Sing The Blues," the out chorus repeats, "I lived my life...for me," and that sums it up pretty well, that and this quote from the '76 interview: "I used to think that  you had to fuck somebody to get ahead. I was programmed that way... I used to say, Ah, yes touch my breasts, but not anymore."  Say what you will about that, but Ruth's songs and attitude clearly bring into focus the changes that happened between the 60's and 70's.  It wasn't an easy road to travel for women back then and it's still no picnic today. Change doesn't come so easy.


Hunter said...

What a story!! Great great post man. Thanks for the education. I listen every of her songs on youtube right now. The cover of "play with fire" is superb. It rocks.. (I am collector of psych and prog rock too).

Will definitely search for more of her music.

Cody B said...

Cool! The links in this post have most of it..maybe all of it. Thanks Nikos.

donges said...

Fantastic history. I've been a Ruth fan for a long time, but never knew all of her story.
Now if we can just find out what happened to her and where she might be today!
Thanks for posting this!!

Cody B said...

Over at another site a bass player in one of her bands jumped in on a thread about her. He was able to provide the name of the Detroit Lion she had been married to...Karl Sweetan.
I asked a bunch of other questions...I'll see what she says.

donges said...

Was that other site Good thread there.

Cody B said...

It was indeed. I seem to be "Mr. Ruth," on the interwebs:)

Amiel said...

Finally up on some broadband after 1.5 months of hustlin on my new house. Looking forward to these CB3.

Cody B said...

Glad your internet woes have been ameliorated:)

Jim said...

This is amazing, thank you for it. Ruth is an amazing vocalist and it really blows that she dropped out of the biz it seems. Probably could have put out a lot more stuff...hopefully she is healthy and happy wherever she is. I'm sure she still has the pipes.

Cody B said...

This Ruth post has a few other bits about Ruth, but no answer yet from her 73/74 bass player about what happened post-Baltimore. Thanks Jim.

Jim said...

I've dug up some interesting info - once i have a more complete picture i'll let you know

donges said...

Jim - don't leave us hanging, man! My top bucket list item: find out whatever happened to Ruth!

Cody B said...

Looking forward to the info about Ruth.

Jim said...

I swear i will not! I will update - i sent out a bunch of new queries. She did get married and left the biz (which is painfully obvious)

Anonymous said...!/pages/Ruth-Copeland/145282905542806

Cody B said...

I left the link on the Ruth FB group..thanks for making it.

Cody B said...

Ruth on Facebook..

Stupify said...

Wow great info - Ruth - please come out of the woodwork if you're still around!!!

Anonymous said...

Ruth is alive and well. Still in the USA but far removed from playing. She can still sing well and will notify us if she records anything new :)

She knows about the facebook page .

Anonymous said...

Knowing Ruthie since she was 9 years old,(I was the first man she asked her Mother could she marry, should her big sister, Norma, turn me down?) I didn't know then of her singing talents, though I did experience them before she left for USA, at Westwood Exservicemens Club. I've seen many true life films, but I really don't think there could by many to supercede this one!

northseajoe said...

Heck of a story. One correction though: I'm sure Ruth would laugh at your description of Consett as a 'country town near Newcastle'. Consett was a steel town, as blue-collar as they come.

Cody B said...

thanks for the clarification North Sea Joe....I didn't have knowledge of the area myself. I was trusting Rolling Stone, who were prolly trusting her publicist at the time.

Anonymous said...

This is awesome. I actually work with this lady. Today she showed us all of her albums, and news articles. Including the "unnamed" Detroit lion she was married to ;). I saw her maiden name and googled her which led me to this article. Most of the information here is correct, but how much of it she wants shared is not my business. Good read though, helped fill in the gaps with what she had mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Hey Cody & all,

Like everyone else on here I'm totally intrigued by Ruth's story and her life since the 70s..I'd love to follow up the story if she is in at all open to talking about it. I'm a documentary maker from near Newcastle recently out of uni. My email is

If this message could be passed on I'd be very grateful. All the best.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I stumbled on all this info about Ruth. I knew her from Consett Ironworks - Punch Card Room - we were 16/17 years old. We used to sing Shangri-la songs in the ladies ( there were 4 of us)! Ruth went to USA (family reasons) and we all missed her. She was very beautiful with a wonderful voice. I have always wondered what happened to her in the USA.

Anonymous said...
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Jerry B said...

I remember Ruth when she was using the name Kelly Michaels in the mid '60s in Detroit, singing with The Naked Lunch. The Lunch was a bar band led by my older brother, playing 6 nights a week in various bars around Metro Detroit. The Detroit Lion she was briefly married to was Karl Sweetan, a " bad boy" quarterback. Kelly briefly stayed at our house for a few weeks while my folks were on vacation and Sweetan would often call her, and I presume he was asking her to come back. I can remember Jeffrey Bowen coming to the house to pick her up, eventually convincing her to leave my brother's band for Invictus. Bowen would later go on to co-write the hit, "Standing On Shakey Ground." On a more personal note, I DO recall Ruth/Kelly attempting to molest me during her short stay at our house. I was 14-15 at the time and she was around 26. I regret not taking full advantage of the situation, and I was a tad awkward!

Cody B said...

Thanks Jerry...I think the world is ready for Ruth to drop a bio on us...stories galore...

Anonymous said...
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Love My Country said...
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Introspective Diva said...

Karl Sweetan, who Ruth was married to, is my father. I am his oldest daughter from his 3rd marriage. He told me about Ruth. She was his one true love but he blew it. Truth be told there was a reason all 4 of his wives divorced him. This is a hard pill to swallow as a daughter. He became a better man later in his life before he died. Because of his conversation with me about Ruth, I had always hoped to find her. I only recently looked & I found this thread.