Piedmont blues specialists John Cephas (guitar) and Phil Wiggins (harmonica) are two of a handful of blues musicians who've benefited from the renewed interest in acoustic music in recent years. Cephas has been praised by the New York Times and other important media as "one of the outstanding exponents of the Piedmont style guitar."
Both were born in Washington, D.C., though Wiggins is 25 years younger than his guitar-playing partner. Both sing well, and their albums are a mix of standard classic blues as well as their own originals. Along with John Jackson from Virginia, they are some of the names that come to mind when we think of Piedmont blues. The Piedmont region (a geological term referring to foothills) includes the hills between the Appalachian mountains and the Atlantic Coastal plain that runs from northern Virginia to Florida. Piedmont blues refers to a blues subgenre that is characteristic of performers from Virginia, the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia. Piedmont blues performers include Peg Leg Howell, Pink Anderson, Jackson, Blind Blake, and Willie Walker.
"Bowling Green" John Cephas is so nick-named because though he was born in Washington (September 4, 1930), he was raised in Bowling Green, VA. Cephas got his first exposure to blues from his aunt while growing up in Virginia. His aunt and her boyfriend both played guitar, and after his aunt showed him blues chords when he was eight or nine, he was off and running. Cephas' playing is influenced by the styles of Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis.
"Harmonica Phil" Wiggins (b.May 8, 1954), a self-taught harmonica player, cites Sonny Terry, Little Walter, Hammie Nixon, Big Walter, Junior Wells, and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) as influences. He began playing while he was still in high school, and by 1976, he was playing the Washington, D.C. Street Fair with gospel singer Flora Molton.
The pair met at a jam session at a friend's house in Washington in 1977, and both performed as regular members of Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis' Barrelhouse Rockers for a time, before Ellis died later that year and the group disbanded. Since becoming a professional touring duo in 1978, Cephas and Wiggins have performed on tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department, including tours of Europe, Africa, Asia, South and Central America, and the Soviet Union.
The duo's albums include several critically acclaimed releases for Marimac Recordings, Flying Fish Records, and most recently, Cool Down for the Chicago-based Alligator Records. The pair's Flying Fish releases from the '80s include Dog Days of August, Guitar Man, and Flip, Flop and Fly. All are great examples of state-of-the-art, acoustic Piedmont blues. They remain a popular festival act, and can be seen throughout the summer months at most U.S. blues festivals. ~ Richard Skelly