Phil Wiggins, a Takoma Park, Maryland-based blues musician, teacher, artistic director, and two time winner of the prestigious WC Handy Blues Foundation awards, is only the third harmonica player to receive the lifetime honor of an NEA National Heritage Fellowship. Often referred to by its unofficial designation as “Living Cultural Treasure” award, the fellowship honors and preserves the diverse cultural heritage in the United States.
His former duo partner, the Piedmont blues singer and guitarist John Cephas, received the National Heritage Fellowship Award in 1989. Phil’s friend and early career catalyst, the great blues singer/guitarist and songster John Jackson received the honor in 1986.
Phil Wiggins is a versatile traditional harmonica player, continuing the Piedmont blues tradition, a gentle and melodic blues style of the mid-Atlantic region.
As a teenager living in Washington D.C. in the 1970s, he played at the Smithsonian National Folklife Festival with street singer Flora Molton, sitting in with blues greats Johnny Shines, Sunnyland Slim, Sam Chatmon, Robert Belfour and Howard Armstrong. By the time he graduated from high school in 1973, D.C. blues elders John Jackson, John Cephas and Archie Edwards had embraced him. He joined the Barrelhouse Rockers, a band fronted by pianist and singer Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis, where John Cephas played guitar. They toured regionally until Ellis retired in 1977, when John Cephas invited him to join in the duo ‘Cephas & Wiggins’.
With John Cephas as guitarist and primary singer, the duo performed together for 32 years as internationally renowned stars of the country blues, and a staple on blues radio. Cephas & Wiggins played Carnegie Hall, Royal Prince Albert Hall in London and the Sydney Opera House, as well as small venues worldwide, touring every continent except Antarctica. They recorded more than a dozen critically acclaimed albums, including on Flying Fish and Alligator Records, winning the prestigious W.C. Handy Blues Award in 1984 for Best Traditional Album of the Year and in 1987 as Entertainers of the Year. They even performed at the White House with B.B. King.
Since the 2009 death of John Cephas, Phil has performed with numerous musicians including Nat Reese, Corey Harris, Australian guitarist Dom Turner, Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons, Sherman Holmes, the Rev. John Wilkins, Jerron Paxton, and longtime friends Eleanor Ellis and Rick Franklin. He fronts the acoustic swing/roots/blues ensemble, the Chesapeake Sheiks, and is actively engaged in reuniting the Piedmont blues with its origins of African American buck and tap dancing.
Phil Wiggins has taught thousands of burgeoning harmonica players and continues to teach and lead as artistic director in workshops, such as at the Augusta Heritage Center and the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop. He continues to play an active role on the board of the National Council for Traditional Arts. Phil appears in and contributed music to the soundtrack of the feature film "Matewan," written and directed by John Sayles. Phil has worked on several documentaries: he appears in and supplies the voice over narration for "Blues Houseparty," produced by Eleanor Ellis, narrates "Portland Mojo: How Stumptown Got the Blues," written and produced by Bob Lietch, and wrote and performed for the soundtrack of "Letters from Mound Bayou."
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