One of the great ragtime stylists of the early 20th Century, Les Copeland was a popular American composer, pianist and performer, who reached success in the USA in the teens but achieved greater fame amongst the ex-patriot American community in Paris during the 1920s. Gershwin regarded him as one of his favourite pianists.
Les C. Copeland was born 4 June 1887 in Wichita, rural Kansas. He made his name on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and for years was the city’s best-liked entertainer. One night he won the piano-playing contest at Spider Kelly’s place with the crowd showering $10 bills on the floor beside him. Later, he became famous as a pianist in Lew Dockstader’s and Neil O’Brien’s ministrels and sold ragtime compositions to Jerome H. Remick and others. Some of his more famous compositions were Cabbage Leaf Rag (1910), 38th Street Rag (1913), Invitation Rag (1913) and French Pastry Rag (1914).
Before long he relocated to New York. In March 1913 he was featured in the Frolic, a new cabaret at 47th Street and in the summer played the College Inn, Coney Island. After an extended engagement at the Lodge’s Cafe, Ocean Beach, San Francisco in late 1915 he re-appeared in New York, and, with a partner Jim Sheedy, purchased the Third Parlour on 7th Avenue, adjoining the Colombia Theatre where he became the featured performer. But the police closed the place down in late May 1916. Copeland did not care for a legal dispute and so pleaded guilty to committing disorderly acts and moved on. He joined the cast of the College Inn, Coney Island during the summer of 1916.
In November 1916 the famous cabaret – restaurant of Reisenweber’s at Columbus Circle transformed its Hawaiian room into an Arabian room to inaugurate a new winter season. Arabian rugs were hung all over the walls and entertainment was provided by the operatic talent of the Arabian Prince Ilma and others in Arabian costumes. Oddly, Les Copeland was added to the cast supplying the rag singing and piano playing. Thereafter, he joined forces with ex-minstrel star Jimmy Meehan and toured in vaudeville in late 1917 and the following summer of 1918 was engaged by McArthys Inn, Port Chester.
Throughout this period Copeland got involved in piano rolls and recorded for one of the earliest examples of a budget-line recording label, Little Wonder. He also collaborated on popular songs for Broadway shows such as the Ziegfield Follies of 1917, including the frugal hit entitled ‘Save Your Money John’ co-written with prolific tunesmith Bert Williams.
As prohibition took hold in the USA, like so many fellow Americans he crossed the Atlantic and found a new lease life in Paris which was being described as ‘a wet suburb of a dry New York.’ In late 1920 he opened a club called the Arizona at 79 Rue des Petits-Champs between Rue de La Paix and Avenue de L’Opera and staged what he called ‘An American Cabaret’. Shortly afterward it would appear the cabaret moved to Luigi’s Elmano at 4 Rue Edouard V11 and he continued well into late 1921.
Then, in early 1922 Copeland opened at the legendary New York Bar at 5 Rue Daunou and sang nightly from 10-2am. According to Basil Woon between the end of dinner and 11.30 when the supper-dancing establishments open there was only one thing doing in Paris and that was the cabaret underneath the New York bar owned by Mrs Nell Milton Henry, wife of a well known jockey and managed by Charley Herrick of New York. It was Les Copeland that firmly put the place on the map. Woon observed that ‘as an entertainer Copeland stands alone’ and added that he was ‘a bohemian and has rooted objections to working unless he needs the money.’ He also mentioned that Copeland had been summoned three times to London to privately entertain the Prince of Wales! Sophie Tucker claimed his speciality was the old songs of Chinatown and he made the songs he brought from San Francisco’s Barbary Coast popular.
The summer of 1922 at the New York bar was particularly buoyant and made famous by regular appearances of the boxer Jack Dempsey and the writer Damon Runyan and a host of other leading celebrities. Copeland continued drawing capacity crowds through the fall but at some point, possibly in September, he had an excursion to Bairritz to entertain European society who usually flocked there at that time.
Back in Paris Copeland moved from the New York Bar to his own club and opened a new cabaret in November in conjunction with Chez Mariette’s somewhere in Montmartre. The Chicago Tribune (Paris edition) enthused about Copeland creating a truly American atmosphere from midnight to 6am ‘his songs being thoroughly original, express the spirit of American folklore in a spontaneous and humorous style.’ Supported by Buddy Gilmore (Irene Castle’s star trap drummer) on the drums, Copeland played the piano and sang some new songs including The Finest Thing in London is the Bobby and You Can Call That a Perfect Day provoking a rapturous reception. But that was not all. Copeland also engaged some friends to sing and Harry MacHenry, Leslie Deslys and Al Brown also delighted audiences with a range of character songs.
A few months later in March 1923, Copeland was still doing well and Vogue UK wrote of him ‘there is a very small cafe theatre of two rooms which is crowded nightly to overflowing with men and women of all nationalities who come to hear a man sing his own songs….He writes songs that vary between sobbing sentimentality and shrieking satire and standing on a small stage with an unceasing movement of restless feet shod in shining patent leathers, sings with a quality of voice that is indescribably musical, colourful and rhythmical.’
Following the flow of bohemian Paris, Copeland became a fixture of the newest and hippest spot in town – The Jockey Club – that opened 14th June 1923 at 146 Boulevard Montparnasse on the corner of the Rue Campeigne Premier. It was a weird little place founded by the American artist Hiler Harzberg (Hiliare Hiler) and a jockey called Miller hence the name. From the outside it looked like a dilapidated shack with quaint, attenuated cowboys painted on the peeling shutters.
It was meant to hold a mere 50 people but on a normal evening over 200 people crammed in like sardines. The small room is covered from to floor ceiling with the weirdest posters and inscriptions of every kind created by Hiler Harzberg. There was a miniscule dance floor in the centre of the room and dancing there required real skill. The ‘orchestra’ if you can call it that, consisted of a broken down piano with a Russian pianist and two cross-eyed banjoists. The cabaret was far from conventional and began with Les Copeland’s singing to Hiler Harzberg playing piano and then followed by pretty Floriane, who did a naughty-naughty dance. Finally, the legendary figure of Kiki took the floor singing rather outrageously dirty songs which strangely did not offend but cause enormous merriment and jollity.
Presumably, Copeland continued appearing in cabaret in Paris until he was lured to England by the glamorous American singers called the Trix Sisters in the Spring of 1924. The Trix Sisters – Josephine and Helen – had arrived in London to appear in the show League of Notions in early 1921 (starring the Dolly Sisters) and then appeared in the revue From A-Z launched in October 1921 with some songs by Copeland. Thereafter, the Trix sisters appeared in cabaret in London and Paris before launching their own revue called Tricks in Nottingham in March 1925. The show toured for many months before being staged at the Apollo theatre London in December 1925. Les Copeland wrote some of the music for the show with Helen Trix and others (Sweetie Do, Mammy’s Love, Cuban Rose, Love Goes Best With a Song, Vanity Fayre and Keeping Young) and appeared in many of the scenes including a solo spot entitled Ivory Land.
Back in New York he appeared at the newly opened Deauville Club in September 1926 but the engagement did not last long and he returned to the UK the following year. Josephine Trix had married Eddie Fields and Helen Trix had formed a new Trix Sisters act with Pollie Ward, called Bino Trix and with Les Copeland on the piano they toured the UK from November1927.
What happened after this is a mystery, but it is likely he returned to America and once again divided his time between the East and West coast. Copeland died 3rd March 1942 San Francisco, California.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Variety, The Day, Chicago Tribune, Vogue (UK) and Theatre World.
The Paris That’s Not in the Guide Books by Basil Woon
Some of these Days by Sophie Tucker
Eugene Chadbourne, All Music Guide http://www.answers.com/topic/les-copeland
Programme for Tricks (1925)