After Bastin’s year at Chapel Hill, I continued on with the South East research for close to a full decade. Of course, the New York area (O&S # 13) connected into this work (as did all Eastern Seaboard cities, from the South up at least to Boston). Brownie McGhee, Tarheel Slim, Alec Seward, and Larry Johnson were some of my first interviews/contacts in the NYC area. They, in turn, led me to others, as was usually the case: any serious contact gave rise to at least three other referrals. It was likely Brownie McGhee who gave me a business card from the liquor store in Washington, DC run by one Wilbert T. Ellis. Big Chief Ellis was at that point out of music (but not out of practice), and he and his brother had the store in the SE section of the nation’s capitol.
No problem there, for DC was on the way to the “deeper” SE states and it was easy to make an extra stop on the way down on yet another field-trip (as I refer to them in retrospect). He was more than interested in talking with me. (Almost everyone I ever dealt with seemed pleased that anyone was interested in their musical past and/or present. Some were initially perplexed, a very few suspicious at first, but that state of affairs didn’t last long once they saw that I was serious and had some knowledge.) A short meeting at the store led to a longer one at his apartment. He loaned me some photos, I had copy negatives made, and we stayed in touch, with recording being one of the topics of conversation.
In late September of 1974, Chief and his wife, Moot, came North on a church-sponsored bus trip to Peg Leg Bates’ Country Club in nearby Kerhonkson, NY. The weather was lousy and Chief became bored – he jumped at my suggestion to come over to my house and record. I had recently obtained a second-hand Steinway upright for just this possibility! I also called Tarheel Slim in the Bronx to let him know… he was willing to come up on the bus the next day (Sunday). They had known each other in the 50s and so they backed each other on a number of different songs that ended up on their respective Trix albums. Chief had been on some of Slim’s early sides for Apollo, and while they hadn’t seen each other in some time, there was nothing tentative about the music they made together. I also spent some time at Bates’ resort (I saw the floor show on that Saturday night), which later led to a long interview of Bates by Glenn Hinson and myself in the early 80s. The tapes that Chief and Slim did (on my four-track Revox) “home studio”) came out beautifully – nothing like working with professionals!
The next year, Chief again made the trip up North in part because I had spoken to Brownie McGhee in NYC and he indicated that he wanted to record with Chief as well! I choreographed it so that it happened – Chief and Dick Spottswood drove up from DC for a week-end, and Brownie drove up from NYC. So I again got a solo session on Saturday, and a relaxed duo session took place on the Sunday. (McGhee had been playing in the City that week-end with Sonny and came up on his day off.) And another pair of sessions by Chief were in the can as a result – that gave me four: one with Slim, one with Brownie, and two solo from the two Saturdays.
One of the times that I stopped in DC to see Chief was after he had told me that he’d met a guitarist that I should hear. He said that this fellow had been at a party he’d attended… he was quietly playing a guitar that was there in a basement “rec room” corner. They talked and got together at a later date to play; it worked for them. In the past, such statements were usually overstated and gave me pause, but Peg Leg Sam (O&S # 16) did put me in touch with Henry Johnson (O&S # 17), so I came along… Chief’s opinion was valued and trusted. Ellis had made a call and this guy came over after work to Chief’s place – I interviewed him at some length and then he pulled out his acoustic guitar. After a few bits, I asked him to stop and ran out to my van and extricated the Uher from under my dogs and immediately recorded John Cephas for the very first time there in Big Chief Ellis’ apartment living room. Fortunately, the neighbors were quiet!
I wanted to record the two of them together later on, but was not able to get South for some time. So Dick Spottswood and Joe Wilson effected that for me in 1976 in great and timely fashion. Once again, some solo stuff, plus some sides with Cephas – and some by John (with Chief). I later recorded John and Phil Wiggins after Chief had returned to Birmingham – possibly the first for the duo as well, although I cannot tell exactly from here… all my “stuff’ is still in storage back in NJ. John knew someone who worked at Redskins’ Stadium (US gridiron football, NFL top level) who got us into a newly-built sky box. It was summer and not football season. This was one of my most comfortable recording sessions… it was quiet, and it was air-conditioned! What more could I ask for?! On this session, I was assisted by Cheryl Brauner, one of Barry Lee Pearson’s graduate students. Had I been able to financially get a Cephas LP together back in the day, she was the designated liner note writer!
Unfortunately, while I was able to get out a Big Chief Ellis LP, the Cephas sessions have never been released. And I never did an album at one sitting, either… usually three at minimum, which I just had from Cephas. I had planned one more session of John by himself to get some songs he talked about, but hadn’t recorded for me (including “Eight More Miles to Louisville”). At that point in time (early 1980s) there was little to no interest in blues in the marketplace. Trix became near-dormant, selling only available catalog and my life kept getting in the way. One of my efforts was to go to the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Folklore and Folklife for almost a decade. This didn’t stop John, though, as he went from strength to strength!
In my decade or so of intensive research I have been lucky to stumble upon (and record) many heretofore unknown musicians (unknown to “us”, that is) and of all of them, it is Henry Johnson, Peg Leg Sam, and John Cephas who stand out among those other so-called unknowns. They were all in their own individual ways consummate musicians, singers, and entertainers… my Fred McDowells, if you will. I’ve been extremely fortunate, haven’t I?!? And John keeps on with the Piedmont flame, a major talent in a crowded world.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM
A few years ago, John made his final trip to Australia where he was a big success at his gigs and even copped an ABC Radio National show (“Music Deli”). Phil told us that John’s diabetes was slowing him down, so we took advantage of a friend’s win of tickets for a Sydney Harbour cruise. It was a great time with good food and great scenery – John could see much while seated in a chair! An enjoyable time was had by all. T’was the last time I was to see him, although I kept in touch by post and, later, e-mails. My friend passed in late 2008 after a wonderful “second” career after retiring from the National Guard Armory in DC. He made some great music, and made the world better by being in it.