It can take a whole lot of courage and conviction for a person to function outside of their normal comfort zone.
Whether they’re pushed – or whether they step outside by their own free will – leaving one’s area of security can be a very daunting thing to do.
But once outside of that protective cocoon, the possibility exists for some amazing – if somewhat unexpected – things to take place.
For harmonica virtuoso Phil Wiggins, that certainly seems to be the case these days.
After playing side-by-side with guitarist John Cephas for over three-and-a-half decades, Wiggins found himself at a virtual crossroads of sorts after his longtime partner and friend passed away in 2009, rendering one of the blues’ all-time great duos into a solo act.
While it’s not been an easy thing, Wiggins has still managed to bounce back onto the scene.
“It’s been a process for me, with all the different people I’ve been collaborating with since my partner passed on,” he said. “It’s been a lot of new adventures for me. As you can probably imagine, after playing with the same person for almost 35 years, it can be a difficult thing. But I’m trying to move forward on my own now.”
That journey of moving forward without John Cephas has led Phil Wiggins down a couple of new paths. Paths he may not have chosen to travel in years past.
“I am completely out of my comfort zone. And to be honest, I hadn’t really realized what kind of a narrow comfort zone that I was in, until I had to get out of it,” he said. “I’m constantly stretching out now. But my life right now is certainly out of what my comfort zone was.”
Since Cephas passed way almost three years ago, Wiggins has found several other sparring partners to play the blues with, including Rev. John Wilkins (son of Rev. Robert Wilkins, author of “Prodigal Son”) and West Virginia bluesman Nat Reese.
But Wiggins’ most intriguing post-Cephas pairing has been with Corey Harris.
Not strictly just a bluesman, Harris’ work has always been filtered through his love and devotion to reggae and world music, that in addition to his strong bond with the sounds of the American Delta.
To put it in plain terms, Harris is certainly no clone of any other performer and plays by his own set of rules.
“At this point, that’s probably the main thing that I’m working on, my combo with Corey,” Wiggins said. “We’ve had some great adventures. He’s a phenomenal musician, but he has a totally different approach, or aesthetic, than John did.”
The Piedmont blues, an East coast style that is known for its finger-picked, ragtime rhythm, was where John Cephas’ guitar playing was deeply rooted. As a matter of fact, since the late 1970s, it would not be a stretch at all to say that Cephas and Wiggins were the preeminent performers of the Piedmont blues.
But Harris’ entry into the orbit of Phil Wiggins has shaken and stirred things up a bit.
“His playing has more of an African kind of style to it, I guess you could say,” said Wiggins. “It’s got more of a groove, or a rhythm to it, with each of us jumping out front and soloing. It’s music that’s great for listening to, but it’s also more in the tradition of dancing. It’s an interesting change for me.”
That is a change that Wiggins has eagerly embraced and one that he is settling into with each passing performance.
“The combination of the two voices and instruments working together creates a different kind of groove than I’m used to playing,” he said. “When I was playing with John, he would play a couple of lines and then leave me some room for soloing. And that’s great to get that kind of immediate gratification. But for me, it’s also a pleasure to play – to create this weaving of fabric into this rhythm – this groove. It’s been a great thing. With John, I was mostly doing rhythm chops while he was singing, but Corey has such a powerful voice, with so much volume, that I can play in unison or play a counterpoint that won’t overpower his singing.”
But Wiggins hasn’t yet, nor will he probably ever, turn his back on the Piedmont style that he’s been associated with for so long.
He’s also been pairing up with Rick Franklin to play the blues.
“He’s more in the ragtime, Piedmont kind of guitar playing. He’s a friend of mine who lives closer to my home,” Wiggins said. “We’ve been playing a lot together. And the cool thing about playing with Rick is, he’s sort of a perfectionist in his approach to the guitar. And the songs that he brings to the table are all pretty much hand-picked by him because of some unique creativeness on the guitar, or some unique melody vocal. And it’s nice because I can latch onto those on the harmonica and it makes for a tighter kind of approach.”
Wiggins and Harris made a recording for Sirius XM Radio back when they first started playing together and fans of the duo can pick up a copy at one of their shows.
With a backlog of material that he’s complied over the years, Wiggins’ hope is to enter the studio in the near future and emerge with some of those tunes pressed onto a compact disc.
“Over the 30-some years that I played with John, I’ve been making up songs. And John and I maybe recorded eight or 10 of those original songs,” he said. “And now I have a whole lot more that I’m looking forward to recording. I like the idea that my songs might be considered useful and might help to strengthen or bolster someone’s life. That’s what I hope, that one or two of my songs will touch somebody and maybe help nourish them and help them in a positive way somehow.”
As he looks to carve out new ground in the ‘second half’ of his career, Wiggins is well aware that his name will be forever entrenched as being a purveyor of the Piedmont blues.
And while some labels or categories can really stifle, or even stunt, a career, Wiggins doesn’t seem bothered by such trivial things at this point in his life.
“I think at this point, people do probably think of that when they think of me. But it’s not really a problem. I love the Piedmont style,” he said. “A lot of the songs that I write myself are rooted in that style, and I like that style, because it has that lively rhythm to it. But it’s a very versatile style, too. It’s not a set-in-stone tradition. It’s a living, changing tradition. I know some ethno-musicologists have a very limited definition of things, but I’m fine having that label. But at the same time, I’m not going to limit myself. I’m going to stretch that label, too. Someone once described John’s and my music as urban acoustic blues and I like that tag. ”
Cephas’ and Wiggins’ long association really began when the two played in ‘Big Chief’ Ellis’ band back in the mid-1970s. After Ellis passed way in 1977, Cephas and Wiggins struck out on their own as a duo.
A partnership that was born despite a two-decade age difference (Cephas was older) and varying individual listening pleasures when it came to music.
“When I met John, he had been raised in that whole East coast style of blues. The music that we first played together when we met was stuff that he grew up with. My family’s roots are from Alabama, so I guess you could say that’s more of a Delta blues influence,” Wiggins said. “And I was listening to everything from delta blues to psychedelic music to Motown … rhythm and blues … I was into all that.”
The one common link that helped bridge the gap of the 24-year age difference between the two gentlemen and their collective music tastes was the sound of acoustic blues.
“Somehow the acoustic, rural blues – whether they were Piedmont or Delta or Texas – that’s what grabbed me and touched and inspired me the most,” said Wiggins. “And that was also what John really liked.”
Wiggins also liked the sound that the tickling of ivories made, and that turned out to have a huge impact on the way he chose to blow the harp.
“When I first started playing harmonica, I was more influenced by other instruments than I was by harmonica players. I stole a lot from piano. When I first started playing, I would say piano music was some of my favorite,” he said. “And if you listen to some of the licks and things I like to do, you can definitely hear the piano triplets and things in there. I also stole a lot from guitar and horn players, too. One of my favorite songs to play is “C.C. Rider” and the version that influenced was ‘Bunk’ Johnson’s, the trumpet player from New Orleans. But him and Louis Armstrong and a lot of sax players, they really influenced me.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Wiggins did not also fall under the spell of some of the all-time great harp blowers.
“Some of my favorite harmonica players are guys like Little Walter, even though he played more of a Chicago style. He was such a genius of phrasing. When I first heard his music, it just stayed on my turntable constantly,” Wiggins said. “Maybe it was a mistake, but I never really sat down and tried to learn his songs note-by-note. I just listened to them constantly because I loved it so much and I must have absorbed some of that style. Also, Junior Wells to me is one of the most soulful players. And then there’s Sonny Boy Williamson – Rice Miller – who I really love. I use my hands a lot when I’m playing and that’s the thing I like about him. He had that big sound he shaped with his hands.”
Much like it does for most bluesmen that end up in it for the long-haul, music found Wiggins at an early age, right in his own house.
“When I was growing up, there was a lot of music going on in the house. My father played the piano and sang in church and my mother sang in church and my older brother is a very good guitar player and singer,” he said. “And the best musicians in my neighborhood were always hanging around to play with my brother, so there were lots of jam sessions going on and I’d always sneak in there.”
Wiggins was born and grew up in Washington D. C., but spent time down south at his grandmother’s house in Alabama over the course of several summers.
“When school was out, we’d go down and spend time at what my Mom called ‘home’ which was right outside of Birmingham. And going to my grandmother’s church down there had a huge influence on me,” he said.
Those early influences continue to have a big say in the way that Wiggins plays the blues, regardless of who is sharing the stage with him. And even though it’s taken a bit of effort to get back into the swing of things since the passing of his longtime friend and musical foil, Wiggins still takes the stage with the same pride and passion that he always has.
“Corey and I just played to a sold-out audience in Cooperstown (N.Y.), but aside from Corey, the folks that I’ve been playing with, the concert presenters and promoters are not that familiar with. So, it’s been hard for me to get work at times,” he said. “They’re top-shelf people that have been at this for a really long time, but they’ve just not traveled that much, or have gotten a whole lot of exposure so far.”
Wiggins knows that with time, that will change. He also knows that people will always have a need to hear and experience the real-deal blues.
“The more technology takes over our lives, the more I think people will be reaching out for something real, something like a touch-the-earth kind of thing,” he said. “And I think people want, and will continue to want, acoustic blues – because, it is real.”