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Phil Wiggins, Virtuoso of the Blues Harmonica, Dies at 69

Phil Wiggins, Virtuoso of the Blues Harmonica, Dies at 69


Phil Wiggins, a harmonica participant of such vary that he may make his instrument sound like a clarinet one minute, an accordion the following after which a whole percussion part — all within the service of the advanced melodies and regular rhythms of the type often called the Piedmont blues — died on May 7 at his house in Takoma Park, Md. He was 69.

His daughter Martha Wiggins mentioned the trigger was most cancers.

For a lot of his profession, Mr. Wiggins was finest often called half of the duo Cephas and Wiggins, through which he carried out and recorded with the guitarist and singer John Cephas. The two had been thought-about one of many nation’s high Piedmont blues acts, they usually toured frequently at house and overseas for over 30 years, till Mr. Cephas’s dying in 2009.

The Piedmont blues is distinct from its Delta and Chicago cousins in its relaxed but difficult melodies and its insistent rhythms. Its influences embrace gospel, Appalachian folks and early nation music.

Mr. Cephas performed his instrument with the delicate fingerpicking typical of Piedmont blues. Mr. Wiggins would wrap all method of counterpoints round it, then burst out in a solo that might be aggressive or restrained, tight or relaxed.

“The harmonica works the identical method as your voice,” he instructed Blues Blast journal in 2021. “You have an thought in your thoughts that you just wish to specific, and it simply comes out, the identical method talking occurs. In a whole lot of methods, it nonetheless feels that intuitive to me, besides that, for me, the harmonica works higher than my voice!”

Phillip Theodore Wiggins was born on May 8, 1954, in Washington, the son of George Wiggins, a cartographer with the Interior Department, and Vicci (Carter) Wiggins, who managed the house. His father died when Phil was 7, and his mom later married Elliott Johnson, an Army officer.

Phil’s household had a well-stocked assortment of information at house, which supplied the primary programs of his musical schooling. He had to purchase his personal devices, he later mentioned, and with a small revenue from a newspaper route, the one factor he may afford was a plastic harmonica.

While in highschool he started hanging out with Black musicians in Washington, a lot of them newly arrived within the metropolis from throughout the South. They would collect on weekends in houses and barber retailers, taking part in a spread of music that mirrored the varied origins of the Great Migration.

He turned particularly near a partly blind avenue singer named Flora Molton, and thru her he met a who’s who of achieved East Coast blues musicians. While nonetheless in highschool, he joined her onstage on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, then later joined a band led by one other esteemed blues artist, the pianist and singer Big Chief Ellis.

Mr. Cephas, 24 years older than Mr. Wiggins, joined Mr. Ellis’s band in 1975, and two years later he and Mr. Wiggins set off on their very own as Cephas and Wiggins.

Within a couple of years they’d caught the eye of L+R, a German document label that specialised in jazz and blues. The label launched their first two albums and, extra necessary, introduced them to Europe to tour blues festivals there.

The duo later traveled the world on the behest of the State Department and the Kennedy Center; they made one look at a folks pageant in Moscow in 1988, earlier than the autumn of the Soviet Union. They recorded 12 albums and gained 11 W.C. Handy Awards, thought-about the blues equal of the Grammy.

Mr. Wiggins’s marriage to Wendy Chick led to divorce. Along along with his daughter Martha, he’s survived by his companion, Judy LaPrade; one other daughter, Eliza Wiggins; 4 sons, Skip, Charles, William and Elliott; a daughter, Rabiyah Khaliq; and two grandsons.

Despite his status as a ferocious virtuoso, Mr. Wiggins offstage was humble and wanting to share his craft. He taught blues workshops across the nation and helped set up the blues program on the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, W.Va., a corporation that promotes conventional arts and crafts. He was a daily teacher at its summer season workshops.

“Phil was a deep and considerate musician,” Emily Miller, the middle’s inventive director, wrote on Facebook. “He wrote daring, important songs and carried out them alongside conventional gems that he polished to only the fitting gritty perfection.”

After Mr. Cephas died, Mr. Wiggins performed with quite a lot of different guitarists, in addition to along with his personal string band, the Chesapeake Sheiks. In 2017, he obtained a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

He continued to play harmonica, however he additionally sang, one thing he not often did when working with Mr. Cephas.

“The important factor about singing is telling a narrative,” he instructed Country Blues journal in 2014. “When I do this, issues work out for me.”

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