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 (as he described in his song “I Was Determined”). 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, Gary Davis and other early Piedmont artists.
Aside from playing blues, John worked early on as a professional gospel singer, carpenter and Atlantic fisherman. By the 1960s he was starting to make a living from his music. John joined pianist Wilber “Big Chief” Ellis’ band and worked with him until Ellis’ death in 1977.
Among his many endeavors, John served on the Executive Committee of the National Council for the Traditional Arts and testified before congressional committees. He was also a founder of the Washington D.C. Blues Society. “More than anything else,” said John “I would like to see a revival of country blues by more young people. More people going to concerts learning to play the music. That’s why I stay in the field of traditional music. I don’t want it to die.”
He was a member of the renowned Cephas and Wiggins duo. John Cephas died March 4 of 2009 of natural causes. He was 78.
Blind Boy Fuller Fulton Allen, also known as Blind Boy Fuller, was one of the most influential and popular Bluesmen of the 1930s. Born in Wadesboro, in southern North Carolina in 1908, Fuller was one of the pioneers of the Piedmont style of Blues that helped define the sound of the Southeast Atlantic coast of the United States.
He recorded an impressive collection of songs in a short span from 1935-1941 on his National steel guitar. He was a master of deep Blues, but was best-loved for his Ragtime influenced hits like “Rag Mama Rag,” “Trucking My Blues Away,” and “Step It Up and Go.”
John Cephas & Phil Wiggins played country blues, keeping the Piedmont tradition alive. The duo celebrated the gentle, melodic blues style of the Southeastern United States.
Because both Cephas and Wiggins were born in Washington, D.C., they brought an urban sophistication to the traditionally rural blues they performed. The duo quickly became popular with traditional blues fans in the United States and in Europe, where they recorded two albums, Living Country Blues and Sweet Bitter Blues, for the German L&R label.
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.
By the end of the 1980s, the international blues community began to recognize Cephas & Wiggins as the leading exponents of traditional Tidewater blues. The two recorded their first domestic album, Dog Days of August, in 1987 in John’s living room, and it quickly won a W.C. Handy 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.
Aside from their busy performance schedule, both Cephas and Wiggins also worked as actors. In 1991 John portrayed a blind bluesman in the Kennedy Center production of Blind Man Blues. Phil was in the cast of Matewon, a prize-winning Hollywood film. Together they appeared in the stage production of Chewing The Blues and in the documentary films Blues Country and Houseparty.
Cephas & Wiggins were also inckuded in four touring arts programs in the United States, sponsored by the National Council For The Traditional Arts: Masters of the Steel String Guitar, Juke Joints and Jubilee, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Echoes of Africa.
In 1996, after two successful albums for the Flying Fish label, Cephas & Wiggins made their Alligator debut with Cool Down. It was a collection of original and traditional country blues. The success of Cool Down helped establish Cephas & Wiggins as essential musicians 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.
John Cephas died March 4 of 2009 of natural causes. He was 78.