Saturday, August 7, 2010
The von Trapp Family of Lower Merion Township
Guitarist David Coppa sometimes sees his family as Lower Merion Township's answer to the von Trapp family.
Like the Austrian family depicted in 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” the suburban Philadelphia family appears bound together by a common love of music.
Coppa’s father is a gifted classical piano player who also plays harmonica.His mother Mary was a professional harp player. Four of his sisters also play the harp, and two of them once performed with major orchestras. His brother Justin first played drums, then classical piano.
Coppa, 42, is carrying on the tradition, but in his own “rebel rock and roller way” as the guitarist for Scrapple, a trio that plays rock-oriented blues. “I’m not the schooled musician of the family but I’m out there doing it,” he said.
Known around the Philadelphia area since the early 1990’s, the group is re-energizing itself in the wake of the spring, 2010 release of “Make a Change,” its second album overall and its first in fifteen years. The new album marked the crest of a comeback that followed a near-hiatus of several years the group fell into after the 1995 release of “Storm,” its first album.
Scrapple, which also features David’s nephew, Pat, on bass and family friend Ray Williams on drums, has also been running the festival circuit.
"We've actually played a lot since David released that CD," said Pat Coppa. The group played the popular Briggs Farm blues festival in Nescopeck, Pennsylvania on July 10 of this year and the Mariposa Micro Brew and Blues Festival in Mariposa, California last year.
Mother to David and grandmother to Pat, Mary Coppa, who died in 2006, was the driving musical force behind the Coppa family. “Mary Coppa taught her children piano and harp,” recalled Pat. “They always loved music so there was always music in the house. She taught a lot of them to play music. It was definitely my grandmother. ”
Mary Coppa bought David a $35 Brazilian guitar when he was 12 or 13. He initially didn’t show much interest. “I kind of bagged it. I just put the guitar in my closet and every time I opened the closet over the next year, the first thing that would fall out is the guitar,” he said. ”It would just plop out on the floor.”
When he finally did pick it up, he found that playing it “just came so natural.”
“I was just really enjoying it. It was like, no more wrestling with it,” he said. ”Everything I did with it was exciting.”
He started to play seriously the summer after his eighth grade year. Chuck Berry became an inspiration, and a bootleg album he purchased while in the ninth grade turned him onto Jimi Hendrix. He also started listening to blues shows on the radio.
Eventually he and three friends—a bassist, a guitarist and a drummer—formed a blues/rock band, naming it “Blusion.”
“We were always the outcast band because we were playing 60’s music,” he said. “We were doing pretty well because we were playing stuff like Stevie Ray and Hendrix as opposed to stuff from the Cars and Devo.”
When the bass player left to join a new band, Coppa told the other guitarist “one of us has to play bass and it’s not going to be me.”
“So he got the hint,” he said.
Blusion dissolved after six or seven years and in 1991 Coppa formed Scrapple.
Already an accomplished guitarist, Pat Coppa was having doubts about a plan to attend college when his uncle approached him about playing bass for the new group.
“Pat told me, ‘look, I don’t know if I’m going to make it with the school thing,”
David Coppa recalled.
”I said ‘Pat if I buy you a bass would you learn to play it and he said ‘I don’t know.’ He called a couple of weeks later and said ‘I’ll take that bass.
Williams, 47,who overcame blindness to actively pursue music, met the Coppa family over 30 years ago while he was playing in a jazz band with Bill McCann, a blind trumpeter who dated and later married Coppa's sister Mary Ann, herself a harp player.
“They’re so much fun to be around,” said Williams, who from time-to-time would tune the family piano. “They’re crazy when they all get together. There’s a bunch of them and they just like kidding around and being funny and crazy.”
Williams started to connect musically with David Coppa during the guitarist's senior year in high school.“I would go over his house, we would just hang out and write stuff and come up with different recordings of things that he wrote, just as demos. Once he decided to start Scrapple he asked me if I wanted to do it and I said ‘sure,’” Williams said.
The group played its first gig at the Barbary, a Philly bar known for its pirate ship-style décor. David Coppa described it as a dive with great food and an excellent PA system. “It had an old linoleum floor where you could spill your beer,” he said.
The gig “was with two other bands and we made 16 bucks,” David Coppa said. The money was split three ways, “but I got the extra buck," he quipped.
The Barbary became sort of a headquarters to Scrapple as the group played regular gigs there and hosted a weekly blues jam. “We used to have a really big biker following,” David Coppa said. “There’d be like 20-30 Harleys parked outside there, not at the weekly jam we did but whenever we had a regularly monthly gig there, there were all kinds of Harleys.”
The group went on to perform in other places around the Philadelphia-Delaware Valley area, sometimes playing four nights a week.
During this time, Pat Coppa, who had started with little experience on the bass, began to show promise on the instrument. “When Pat started Pat couldn’t play bass for anything and I told him ‘Pat, you can’t play bass,’ “Williams recalled. “But between Dave and myself coaching him, and him practicing and everything, he’s really become a very good bass player.”
“Storm” was recorded by an engineer who came out to see the group and wanted to make a CD. “He footed the whole bill for the record,” David Coppa said.
But the high from the record was short-lived. “My experience is that bands record a disc and then they disappear,” Coppa said. “They don’t do it intentionally but it happens. Basically we played for another six months and then we fizzled out.”
David Coppa settled into a marriage and his bandmates went on to other musical ventures. But the end of his marriage about four years later brought music back in his life.The band re-formed and went on to record the CD.
Band Manager Dave Lach, who sponsored the CD, believes it will make getting gigs that much easier. "It just may take some time,” he said.
Lach, who sponsored the new album, first met the group in 2004 at a gig it played in Media, a Philly suburb. “The first gig I booked David was a solo gig at the old Vincent’s in West Chester, PA where they supplied the rhythm section and the band played for tips,” Lach said. ”It was the last time he played for tips but the tip jar was full at the end of the night and after I gazed at the audience that night I was convinced he was the real deal.”
David Coppa is proud of the new album, on which 12 out of 13 songs are original .
Still, he wants the band to treat it as a beginning, and not again get swept up by the feeling of accomplishment that comes from recording a CD.
“Really what should be happening is that it should be an incentive for us to work harder,” he said.