One of my NYC meetings in the mid-1970s with Brownie McGhee resulted in getting an address for Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis in the Washington, DC area where he and his brother ran a liquor store. That resulted in interviews, photographs, and a couple of recording sessions at my home in upstate NY – one with Tarheel Slim (1974), and one with Brownie (1975). Chief later mentioned meeting a guitarist at a party who was downstairs playing quietly to himself in a corner while the party went on above. Ellis called me and said, “I’ve met this guitar player you ought to meet.” So, I went down to DC in the summer of 1976 on his recommendation, for he was a good judge of talent, what with his years in the business in NYC studios in the 40s/50s.
I got to Chief and Moot’s apartment late on one July afternoon. His friend would stop by after finishing work, I was told. Right on time, this handsome guy in neat work clothes came into the apartment, and we sat down and talked, taping the interview and shooting photos as we went along. Eventually, he took out his guitar and started to play – I said, “Hold on!”, went out to my van and pulled out my stuff; setting up the mics, I proceeded to get three reels of tape recorded then and there in the living room! Chief was right… this guy was GOOD. Such was my introduction to John Cephas.
John was also the last sessioneer that I personally recorded in 1980 (w. Phil) after Chief had gone back to Birmingham. In the interim, Joe Wilson and Dick Spottswood picked up the ball in DC and got John more sessions (including two with Chief later in 1976 that I used), gigs, et al. Cephas and I kept in touch over the years, though – he and Phil even played near my house one week-end at the DuPuy Canal House: They even came over for breakfast the following day… I long-term loaned him my National Triolian then, and it can be seen on one of his LP covers! Cephas said that I should buy a block of land bordering his in Woodford, VA and build a house next door to his… maybe I should have done that! I last saw him here in Sydney on his final trip hereabouts. His diabetes had slowed him down. We took he and Phil on a harbor cruise, a great way to see many things while sitting down (complete with a massive meal)… it was a good time for all concerned.
Cephas was a fine guitarist, a beautiful singer, a complete and total gentleman, and a good friend, even at such distance. While I am not surprised by his passing (adult onset diabetes is a common problem for Southern Blacks), I do mourn it. It’s trite to say “His kind will never walk the earth again”, but it really is true as another brick leaves the wall. Vale, John, my good friend – we’ll miss you.
PETER B. LOWRY
see: Oddenda & Such #19