Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Cephas & Wiggins - Shoulder to shoulder 2006
John Cephas was born in Washington, D.C. in 1930 into a deeply religious family and raised in Bowling Green, Virginia. His first taste of music was gospel, but blues soon became his calling. After learning to play the alternating thumb and fingerpicking guitar style that defines Piedmont blues, John began emulating the records he heard by Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis and other early blues artists. Aside from playing blues, John worked early on as a professional gospel singer, carpenter and Atlantic fisherman. Since hooking up as a duo with Wiggins in 1977, he has performed all over the world, serving as an ambassador of this singular American art form. Among his many endeavors, John serves on the Executive Committee of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, and has testified before Congressional committees.
Phil Wiggins was born in Washington, D.C. in 1954. He began his musical career with some of Washington's leading blues artists, including Archie Edwards and John Jackson, and attributes his style to his years spent accompanying locally popular slide guitarist and gospel singer Flora Molton. His harmonica sound developed from listening to piano and horn players, as well as the music of Sonny Terry, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton and Junior Wells. Phil also apprenticed with Mother Scott (a contemporary of Bessie Smith). Phil first met John in 1976 at the Smithsonian National Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C..
By the 1980s, the international blues community recognized this marvelous acoustic twosome as the leading exponents of traditional Tidewater blues. Often under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, the two spent much of the 1980s abroad, playing Europe, Africa, Central and South America, China, Australia and New Zealand. In 1988, they were among the first Americans to perform at the Russian Folk Festival in Moscow. Cephas & Wiggins recorded their first domestic album, Dog Days Of August (Flying Fish Records), in 1987 in John's living room, and it quickly won a Blues Music Award for Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year. In 1989, John received a National Heritage Fellowship Award. Often called the "Living Treasure Award," this is the highest honor the United States government offers a traditional artist.
In 1996, after two successful albums for Flying Fish, Cephas & Wiggins made their Alligator debut with Cool Down. The vibrant collection of original and traditional country blues hid its complexity in the duo's simple, effortless delivery. "Easy to love," said The Associated Press. Jazz Times called the album "a pure, unadulterated country blues gem." 1999 saw the release of Homemade, and 2002’s Somebody Told The Truth followed. The Washington Post declared, "Cephas & Wiggins are giants, weaving Wiggins' harmonica and Cephas' voice and guitar together so seamlessly that one mind seems to govern both mouth and all four arms…a marvelous and essential journey."
The success of Cool Down, Homemade, and Somebody Told The Truth helped establish Cephas & Wiggins as key figures in the resurgence of interest in country blues, as seen in the success of young acoustic artists like Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis, Chris Thomas King and others. "No pretense here," hailed The Chicago Tribune describing a typical Cephas & Wiggins performance, "just down-home, traditional country blues delivered with feeling." After hundreds of concerts at major festivals, concert halls and colleges (not to mention the many workshops the two conduct), Cephas & Wiggins continue to bring energetic good times to each performance, winning new fans everywhere they go. Now, with Shoulder To Shoulder and extensive international touring, Cephas & Wiggins' mission to keep the Piedmont blues alive continues from the White House to festival stages all over the world.
Almost immediately after guitarist/vocalist John Cephas joined forces with harmonicist/vocalist Phil Wiggins in 1978, the blues community took them to heart. Critics and fans proclaimed them as the new champions of the East Coast Piedmont style of blues, a style of music first popularized by artists like Blind Boy Fuller, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell and Blind Blake. They have performed for people all over the world, from tiny living rooms for only a handful of people to major blues festivals and in front of thousands. They even entertained at President Clinton's inaugural party in 1997.
Cephas & Wiggins, whose style and appeal is often compared to that of an earlier Tidewater duo, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee -- keep the tradition alive by infusing it with their own originality, vitality, and, most importantly, fun. The duo celebrates the gentle, melodic blues style of the southeastern U.S. with every performance. According to Living Blues, Cephas & Wiggins "remain today's premier blues guitar and harmonica duo." The Washington Post said, "Remarkable guitar and harmonica duets. Their infectious rhythms and supple melodies combine tasteful fingerpicking with impassioned harmonica solos."
Their fourth album for Alligator, Shoulder To Shoulder, Cephas & Wiggins' spirited and seamless mix of both original and classic material sheds a bright light on Piedmont blues. Of the album's 12 songs, Cephas wrote or co-wrote six. With the solid mix of brilliantly played music fueled by Cephas' gently rolling guitar and vocals and driven by Wiggins' freight train chugging harmonica, Shoulder To Shoulder is the antidote for anyone who still thinks blues music is a soundtrack for sadness. According to Wiggins, "People automatically think of sadness and depression when they think of blues. But the blues is uplifting music, music to rejuvenate you, to nourish the spirit. When you get down, the blues will pick you up again." The duo is joined by pianist Ann Rabson (Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women) on six tracks, pianist Daryl Davis on one and bassist Andrew Volpe on two.
The duo of acoustic guitarist John Cephas and harpist Phil Wiggins enjoyed a partnership spanning across several decades, during which time they emerged among contemporary music’s most visible exponents of the Piedmont blues tradition. Both were born in Washington, D.C., although Wiggins was a quarter century younger than his partner; they met at a jam session in 1977, and both performed as regular members of Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis’ Barrelhouse Rockers for a time prior to Ellis’ death. Their music, rooted in the rural African-American dance music of Virginia and North Carolina, showed the influence of Blind Boy Fuller, Gary Davis, and Sonny Terry, with a broad repertoire consisting of Piedmont blues standards as well as an eclectic sampling of Delta stylings, R&B, ballads, ragtime, gospel, and country & western; onward from their 1984 debut, Sweet Bitter Blues, Cephas & Wiggins’ sound applied sophisticated traditional instrumentation and modern gospel-edged vocals to both traditional standards and their own hard-hitting compositions, offering a soulful acoustic option to electric blues. A popular festival act, they also issued LPs including 1986’s W.C. Handy Award-winning Dog Days of August, 1988’s Walking Blues, 1992’s Flip, Flop and Fly, and 1996’s Cool Down. They kept going strong and in 1999 released their ninth album, Homemade, on the legendary Alligator label. In 2000, Bullseye Blues issued From Richmond to Atlanta, a compilation of tracks from Cephas & Wiggins’ three Flying Fish albums recorded between 1984 and 1992. The duo continued to tour and play festivals, helping to keep the Piedmont sound alive. In the summer of 2002, they released Somebody Told the Truth, a mixture of old and new tracks that reintroduced them to the next generation of blues fans. Shoulder to Shoulder appeared in 2006 from Alligator Records. Richmond Blues followed in 2008 from Smithsonian Folkways.
By Barry Lee Pearson & Richard Skelly, All Music Guide.
John Cephas- (Vocals, Guitar)
Phil Wiggins- (Harmonica)
Daryl Davis, Ann Rabson- (Piano);
Andrew Volpe- (Bass).
01. Ain't Seen My Baby 3:22
02. I Did Do Right 3:35
03. Catfish Blues 5:52
04. Susie Q 3:12
05. All I've Got Is Them Blues 2:48
06. Dirt Road 4:25
07. Broke And Hungry 5:01
08. Three Ball Blues 3:36
09. Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? 2:27
10. I Won't Be Down 5:21
11. Seattle Rainy Day Blues 4:11
12. The Blues Three Ways (live) 7:20