Phil Wiggins is arguably America’s foremost blues harmonica virtuoso, and a master of the unique blues traditions of the Piedmont. He achieved worldwide acclaim over three decades as one half of the premier Piedmont blues duo of Cephas & Wiggins. Blues from the Piedmont—the hilly region between the Appalachians and low-lying coastal areas that stretches through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland—is one of the oldest forms of the blues. It draws heavily on earlier fiddle and banjo string band music that was equally popular among rural blacks and whites, and served as a staple at country parties, hoedowns and square dances. Although Phil Wiggins’s harmonica playing is rooted in the melodic Piedmont or “Tidewater” blues of the Chesapeake region, his mastery of the instrument now transcends stylistic boundaries.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1954, Wiggins spent summers during his childhood at his grandmother’s house in Alabama, and in church there he absorbed the sounds of old-time hymns sung in the traditional call-and-response style. Phil was attracted to blues harmonica as a young man, and began his musical career with some of Washington, D.C.’s leading blues artists, including Archie Edwards and John Jackson. He attributes his basic style to the years spent accompanying locally-noted slide guitarist and gospel singer Flora Molton.
In 1976 Phil met bluesman Cephas; with pianist Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis and bassist James Bellamy, they formed the Barrelhouse Rockers. A year later, the duo of Cephas & Wiggins was born. Since the death of guitarist and singer John Cephas in 2009, Phil has brought his harmonica wizardry to bear in a variety of musical collaborations. In addition to his skills on the harmonica, Wiggins is also a fine songwriter.
Phil is a two-time winner of the prestigious W.C. Handy Award. He regularly ranks among the world’s top harmonica players in both Reader and Critics’ polls by Living Blues magazine. In 2017, Phil received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.