Quite some time ago I got to attend a rather exclusive event called International Guitar Seminars. It was held in NYC at Columbia University. The founders of this seminar were well regarded in the field of music and guitar playing. One founder went on to be given the World Music Guitarist of the Year Award-by the BBC. The other founder is a well known, Julliard trained musician. It was rumored that the movie “Crossroads” (life of Robert Johnson) was taken directly from his life. The historical character was actually Rev. Gary Davis and not Robert Johnson, so goes artistic license.
It was two o’clock in the morning and I wander from my dorm room. In the hallway are my new found friends. They are shouting at each other. My friend John Cephas is one of the music instigators and he yells at the student. “What has your God ever done for you!” Being from upper midwest I find this kind of confrontation rather alarming. The poor student had recently lost some of his motor skills because of a small stroke. I quickly realize that both of them have had to much to drink and I usher them off to their rooms for a night of sleep.
The following morning I talk to the organizers and founders of this amazing seminar and I explain to them that emotions were running rather high last night. They assured me that no harm was done and that John was a devout Atheist and had some strongly held beliefs, as strong as his Hindu student.
This was my introduction to New York and the Columbia Univ. dorm life. Forty to fifty national and international students would attend each year. My days were spent at various seminars, some were held in class rooms and sometimes we performed at various venues around campus (Jefferson Hall of Journalism). Quality sound equipment was on hand for creating an above average setting. On one particular warm and sunny day we all went outside to have a lesson. Passers by would recognize some of the more well known instructors and a crowd would gather to listen to their music and instruction. If the uninvited crowd got to big and effected the lesson, the music seminar instigators would unceremoniously tell the crowd to move along.
Music and practice was encouraged throughout the week long seminars. After the day was done music was played long into the night. World renown musicians jamming with not so renown musicians. Everyone had high regard for each other and their abilities.
At the time I knew little of this fellow named John Cephas. Everyone else was well aware of John and his musical duo called Cephas and Wiggins (Wiggins is the harmonica player). John grew up behind a mule and a plow in the tobacco fields of Virginia. He became a master & pivitol player of Piedmont Blues. Piedmont is a geologic term that refers to the foothills encompassing the Appalachian Mountains to the coastal plain. A very specific type of blues music was created in this region. His abilities drew him much fame and he was asked to do world tours for the U.S. State Dept. Late in the night we would talk geography. He had traveled for years in Europe, Asia, Soviet Union, South and Central America. He was proficient in his geographic knowledge and in some ways during these travels he missed out of some of the “blues scene” in the U.S.A. He had earned a name in places other than the U.S.A.
Unbeknownst to me his good friend was B.B. King. They were about the same age, they both grew up in poverty. They both had diabetes and they both played blues with a high degree of proficiency.
The times at Columbia were demanding, we played music all day and all night. There was no curfew and people played and jammed into the wee hours (1,2, 3 a.m) I was really ready for some sleep when John Cephas told me that B.B. was in town and that we should go down and sit in with him at his nightclub. At this time I did not who John was and his connection to B.B. King. New York City is a place that causes me to go the wrong direction on subways. It was already 9:30 p.m and I didn’t want to fully put my trust into my new found friend and wander off in the subways of NYC looking for B.B. King. I declined his invitation, after all, he was the fellow that had to much to drink the night before. I pondered this possibility and went off to bed and had a good nights sleep.
Two weeks later I had returned home and was watching a public television special. It was called blues for the President of the United States. There was B.B. King and my friend John Cephas playing at the White House for the President. John was neatly dressed in a white suit and white hat and the two of them stole the show. My son was sitting on the couch next to me and I told him that John was my next door room mate and that I had declined to go jam with B.B. (my claim to fame)
The following year , when I last saw John Cephas he had had more complications with his diabetes. They had amputated his big toe. To this serious whittling away of his parts, John stated “I’ll see my toe in Heaven!”