SALISBURY — When members of the Salisbury University and surrounding community tuned into “American Idol” on Monday, March 21, they saw a familiar face — even more familiar than its famous host and three iconic judges.
Salisbury native and SU alumnus Jay Copeland made his appearance during one of the show’s audition episodes that evening on ABC.
Copeland’s performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” blew away the judges, who awarded him the final coveted platinum ticket, which means he gets to bypass the first round of Hollywood Week.
“I am blessed to grow up as a member of the Salisbury community and the Eastern Shore,” said Copeland before the show. “I feel honored to have the support of my community, and I hope to make everyone proud. Every time I perform, I represent not only myself and my family; I represent my Salisbury community.”
Copeland was passionate about singing as a child and has worked for years on his craft with John Wesley Wright, SU associate professor of music. Wright’s husband, Bruce Glover, had heard Copeland sing as a middle school student and recommended that Wright reach out.
Hesitant at first, due to his work building the voice program as SU, Wright was not interested until he heard a recording of Copeland performing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and was in awe of Copeland’s performance. He called the young singer “completely authentic, soulful and naturally charismatic. He was singing with a man’s sound even at 11 and 12 years old.”
“I grew up in a musical family,” said Copeland. “Music was a big part of our Sunday services, so it helped develop my ear for music at a young age. Once I reached middle school, I began singing in the school choir, where my middle school teacher at Salisbury Middle School, Mrs. Daniel, gave me my first solo, ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.’ That’s when I discovered my passion for performing.”
At James M. Bennett High School, Copeland was praised during his performances during Rock & Roll Revival, a yearly musical revue, but Wright saw some habits developing which he didn’t think were healthy in the long run and had a hard conversation with the then-high school senior.
“I was really tough on him,” Wright said. “The great thing about pop culture is that it’s at our fingertips; it’s very accessible in a moment. However, it can give people the notion that attaining success is instantaneous. With all the young people, and especially a young African American male, I tell them it’s not what they think and they’ll have to work hard. I was probably tougher on him in the beginning. I wanted to test how serious he was.”
Wright believes his honesty and showing that he would always push Copeland to be better, to be stronger and to constantly improve led to Copeland’s choice to attend SU and a more difficult path pursuing both voice and theatre training in the Music, Theatre and Dance Department.
At SU, Copeland benefited from a student-centered curriculum and program. Not only are voice and theatre students educated on proper technique, but they are given the opportunity to put them in action in numerous productions and competitions, through which the students and faculty develop a familial bond.
The family atmosphere made Copeland feel at home and helped him hone his craft over his four years in the program.
“There are so many faculty members and fellow students from SU who encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone, pushed me to never settle for mediocrity and provided me with opportunities beyond my expectations,” he said. “I would not be the person I am today without their help, guidance and unwavering friendship.”
Copeland credits Wright; Matt Saltzberg; Veronica Tomanek; Robert Smith; Dr. Nan Richerson; SU’s a cappella group, Squawkappella; and the Powerful Connections orientation program for helping him succeed at SU.
Wright had a front row seat to many of Copeland’s performances. He noted that Copeland’s final SU-affiliated performance, which won the 2020 National Association of Teachers of Singing competition, was the one he believes stood out most. Copeland’s entry, “Lost in the Wilderness,” was made via video submission due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many times, students who participate in NATS through their first few years of school begin to eschew the competition in later years due to time commitments and shifting interests, Wright said. Copeland was committed to the process and was rewarded with the victory and high praise from the judges, including one who noted, “If you do not end up singing on Broadway, I will eat my adjudication sheet.”
It was through videos like that which “American Idol” producers identified Copeland as a talent they wanted involved in this year’s competition. Through completing additional videos at the producers’ requests, Copeland eventually was invited to appear on an audition episode.
“Singing in front of (judges) Katy Perry, legendary Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan was an eye-opener for me not as an artist, but as a person,” said Copeland. “It showed me that I truly can do anything I set my mind, body and spirit to.
“Before entering the room, I prayed to God, telling him that if he didn’t do anything else for me, that this was enough. I honestly couldn’t believe, after everything I went through in those two short months back in the fall of 2021, that I would be singing in front of three celebrity judges. However, when I walked into the room, I made sure I remained true to who I was and who I am.
“I walked into the room as myself and no one else. The three of them were simply amazing. They began with small talk as if we had met before. Once it was time to sing, I gave it all I had.”
The judges gave him a standing ovation and raved about his performance.
“Your talent is off the chain. You can’t study anymore. There’s nothing to study, OK. We needed this. We’ve been waiting for you to walk through that door. I’m so happy you showed up,” Richie told him.
“We’ve been waiting on a kid like you,” Bryan said, “because you’re going to be able to electrify a crowd. You’re perfect, in my opinion.”
“Finally, a competition,” Perry said.
Wright believes Copeland’s versatility is key to his chances to make an extended run on the show by impressing the judges, and perhaps America during live broadcasts later in the season.
“I believe Jay has an exceptional chance of going deep on American Idol and even walking away as the winner,” said Wright “Why? Because Jay is smart, astute and understands the true meaning of stylistic integrity. He knows how to turn a phrase in the styles he’s more familiar with, like gospel, pop and Broadway, then can turn around and deliver a country song — convincingly! And all from the heart.
“That ability to move fluidly, fluently and soulfully in and out of different genres will give him an edge in a competition like Idol.”