MEETING JOHN CEPHAS: His First Recording Session

 During my decade of active field recording, one of the factors in any of my successes was pure dumb luck! This is one example. I had developed a good relationship with Brownie McGhee and he helped me in some of my searching for musicians. One was to point me towards pianist/singer Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis in Washington, DC. Chief owned and ran a liquor store there with his brother, and I wandered off to see him one day in my travels and talked with him a bit. One week-end in 1974, Chief and his wife were staying at Peg Leg Bates’ Country Club, just down the road from me in Cottekill, NY. It rained the whole time they were there. So, Chief decided to use some of the time recording for me – I DID have a Steinway upright in good nick! Tarheel Slim came up Sunday to record with Chief and vice versa. The following year, Chief was up near me to record once more – Brownie came up on that Sunday to join in! Bingo, an album!!

This all as set-up to the Cephas story. Chief called me one day in 1976 to tell me that he’d met a fine guitar player that I should meet. So I specifically rolled down to DC to meet this guy after he finished work at the National Guard Armory. So, there I was at Chief and Moot’s apartment waiting for this person. Eventually, in walked John in his work clothes and I interviewed him at some length. He then pulled out his guitar and began playing and singing – I asked him to stop and went out to the van and grabbed the faithful Uher and mics, and proceeded to record the man. Eighteen songs were rattled off in quick succession, all marvelous in both his singing and playing… the closest I ever got to another Henry Johnson in those fields!

I generally had a hard and fast rule with anyone I recorded more than once. NEVER sit someone down with the mics, have them rattle off a dozen songs and call it an album. My general number was four different sessions with a variety of guitars, then pick what I considered “the best” (at that time). That gave it all a sense of difference spread throughout the record – variety über alles is best! But, here, I break with my usual rule-of-thumb… you’ll understand why when you listen – this was before blues became the main focus of his performance repertoire.

I also plan another album of John’s material entitled “Capitol Blues” (NTR 1720) later on that will have cuts with pianist Big Chief Ellis and some of his first duo recordings with Phil Wiggins. That connection came about via Ellis using them both in his little band before he moved back to Birmingham, AL from our nation’s capital. With John’s death in 2009, the music ended and we lost a fine example of the Piedmont tradition of blues guitar[1].

At long last I get to release “my” recordings of John’s surprise (to me) evening in Chief’s living room for your delectation – he was such a smooth guitar player and lovely singer. The repertoire ran the gamut from a gospel song (see “In the Spirit: Sacred Guitar Music from the Piedmont”, tentatively to be issued on NTR-1749) to common blues numbers to an old pop tune to a country song to an instrumental guitar piece. This was before Blues became the main focus of his performance repertoire as a result of playing folk festivals and giving them what they wanted! Ellis was right – this guy was fantastic and truly had the goods[2]!

Once again, I was one fortunate, shy WASP guy from northern NJ in “locating” fine musical talent throughout the “Piedmont” region. Most of them were male, and most of them were guitar players – a few banjo players were referred to me for taping and that material will be issued under separate cover. For now, you have the initial recordings of one of the finest “folk” singers and guitar players, ever, regardless of race, region or style. Serious thanks are due the late Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis for insisting that I come to his place IMMEDIATELY and hear this man. Cephas was my last great “find” in my decade on the road, and the subject of my last field recording session in 1980 – check out the other album for more when it is released, you won’t regret it one iota!

PETER B. LOWRY                                                                                                                             Sydney, Australia                                                                                                                                   2019

[1] Phil Wiggins still performs as a soloist and with other groups (2017) … the beat goes on.

[2] For a full biography of John, read: Virginia Piedmont Blues: The Lives and Times of Two Virginia Bluesmen, University of Pennsylvania Press (1990) Philadelphia by Barry Lee Pearson.


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