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

Phil Wiggins, a harmonica player of such range that he could make his instrument sound like a clarinet one minute, an accordion the next and then an entire percussion section — all in the service of the complex melodies and steady rhythms of the style known as the Piedmont blues — died on May 7 at his home in Takoma Park, Md. He was 69.

His daughter Martha Wiggins said the cause was cancer.

For much of his career, Mr. Wiggins was best known as half of the duo Cephas and Wiggins, in which he performed and recorded with the guitarist and singer John Cephas. The two were considered one of the country’s top Piedmont blues acts, and they toured regularly at home and abroad for over 30 years, until Mr. Cephas’s death in 2009.

The Piedmont blues is distinct from its Delta and Chicago cousins in its relaxed yet complicated melodies and its insistent rhythms. Its influences include gospel, Appalachian folk and early country music.

Mr. Cephas played his instrument with the sophisticated fingerpicking typical of Piedmont blues. Mr. Wiggins would wrap all manner of counterpoints around it, then burst out in a solo that could be aggressive or restrained, tight or relaxed.

“The harmonica works the same way as your voice,” he told Blues Blast magazine in 2021. “You have an idea in your mind that you want to express, and it just comes out, the same way speaking happens. In a lot of ways, it still feels that intuitive to me, except that, for me, the harmonica works better 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 home. His father died when Phil was 7, and his mother later married Elliott Johnson, an Army officer.

Phil’s family had a well-stocked collection of records at home, which provided the first courses of his musical education. He had to buy his own instruments, he later said, and with a small income from a newspaper route, the only thing he could afford was a plastic harmonica.

While in high school he began hanging out with Black musicians in Washington, many of them newly arrived in the city from across the South. They would gather on weekends in homes and barber shops, playing a range of music that reflected the diverse origins of the Great Migration.

He became especially close to a partly blind street singer named Flora Molton, and through her he met a who’s who of accomplished East Coast blues musicians. While still in high school, he joined her onstage at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, then later joined a band led by another 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 own as Cephas and Wiggins.

Within a few years they had caught the attention of L+R, a German record label that specialized in jazz and blues. The label released their first two albums and, more important, brought them to Europe to tour blues festivals there.

The duo later traveled the world at the behest of the State Department and the Kennedy Center; they made one appearance at a folk festival in Moscow in 1988, before the fall of the Soviet Union. They recorded 12 albums and won 11 W.C. Handy Awards, considered the blues equivalent of the Grammy.

Mr. Wiggins’s marriage to Wendy Chick ended in divorce. Along with his daughter Martha, he is survived by his partner, Judy LaPrade; another daughter, Eliza Wiggins; four sons, Skip, Charles, William and Elliott; a daughter, Rabiyah Khaliq; and two grandsons.

Despite his reputation as a ferocious virtuoso, Mr. Wiggins offstage was humble and eager to share his craft. He taught blues workshops around the country and helped establish the blues program at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, W.Va., an organization that promotes traditional arts and crafts. He was a regular instructor at its summer workshops.

“Phil was a deep and thoughtful musician,” Emily Miller, the center’s artistic director, wrote on Facebook. “He wrote bold, essential songs and performed them alongside traditional gems that he polished to just the right gritty perfection.”

After Mr. Cephas died, Mr. Wiggins played with a number of other guitarists, as well as with his own string band, the Chesapeake Sheiks. In 2017, he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

He continued to play harmonica, but he also sang, something he rarely did when working with Mr. Cephas.

“The main thing about singing is telling a story,” he told Country Blues magazine in 2014. “When I do that, things work out for me.”

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