March 16, 2017 – James Cotton was born on July 1, 1935 in Tunica, Mississippi. He was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters who grew up in the cotton fields working beside their mother, Hattie, and their father, Mose. On Sundays Mose was the preacher in the area’s Baptist church. Cotton’s earliest memories include his mother playing chicken and train sounds on her harmonica and for a while he thought those were the only two sounds the little instrument made. His Christmas present one year was a harmonica, it cost 15 cents, and it wasn’t long before he mastered the chicken and the train. King Biscuit Time, a 15-minute radio show, began broadcasting live on KFFA, a station just across the Mississippi River in Helena, Arkansas. The star of the show was the harmonica legend, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). The young Cotton pressed his little ear to the old radio speaker. He recognized the harmonica sound AND discovered something – the harp did more!
By the time he turned nine, both of his parents had passed away and Cotton was taken to Sonny Boy Williamson by his uncle. When they met, Cotton wasted no time – he began playing Sonny Boy’s theme song on his treasured harp. “I walked up and played it for him. And I played it note for note. And he looked at that. He had to pay attention.” The two harp players were like father and son from then on. “I just watched the things he’d do, because I wanted to be just like him. Anything he played, I played it,” he remembers.
So sure was Cotton of his future in music, that he allegedly told Williamson that he was an orphan and ended up moving into Williamson’s home at age nine, soaking up the intricacies of blues harpdom from one of its reigning masters. It didn’t happen that way he admitted later, but Williamson did mentor Cotton during his early years.
There were dozens of juke joints in the South at the time and Sonny Boy played in nearly every one in Mississippi (pronounced “miz-sip-ee”) and Arkansas. Now he had an opening act! Because Cotton was too young to go inside he would “open” for Sonny Boy on the steps of these juke joints, sometimes making more money in tips outside than Sonny Boy did at the gig inside.
When one morning Williamson left the South to live with his estranged wife in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he left his band in Cotton’s hands. Cotton later said: “He just gave it to me. But I couldn’t hold it together ’cause I was too young and crazy in those days an’ everybody in the band was grown men, so much older than me.”
There was no one to care for the young teenager – no real home to go to – but young Cotton had his harmonica. Beale Street in Memphis was alive with the blues and Cotton played on the street for tips. Also, he put a mean shine on any paying customer’s shoes. When he’d been with Sonny Boy, they had played a juke joint named “The Top Hat” in Black Fish, Arkansas. One night he heard Howlin’ Wolf was playing there and he decided it was time to meet him. He was still underage but the owner let him through the door this time. He liked the young musician plus he knew if Cotton sat in with Howlin’ Wolf the good times would roll even farther, deep into the night. Cotton got along well with Howlin’ Wolf from the moment they met and they began to play the juke joints as far north as Caruthersville, Missouri, and as far south as Natchez, Mississippi, with Cotton doing most of the driving down old Highway 61. He learned the ways of the road from a second blues legend.
Gigging with many area notables such as Joe Willie Wilkins and Willie Nix, Cotton built a sterling reputation around West Memphis. Sam Phillips, whose Sun label was still a fledgling operation, invited Cotton to record for him. At the ripe old age of 15 Cotton cut four songs at Sun Records: “Straighten Up Baby,” “Hold Me In Your Arms,” “Oh, Baby,” and “Cotton Crop Blues” with that a heavily distorted rock and roll power chord–driven electric guitar solo by Pat Hare. Never confirmed legend has it Cotton played drums instead of harp on the first platter.
KWEM, a radio station in West Memphis, Arkansas, directly across the Mississippi River from Memphis, gave Cotton a 15-minute radio show in 1952. This was a great achievement for a bluesman who was only 17 years old. It gave him a wider audience; not everyone went to juke houses, but the radio was on everyday from 3-3:15 p.m. Mississippi and Arkansas held the very essence of the blues in their cotton fields. People wanted to hear their own music.
Cotton had gigs every weekend but to help support himself better he found a job in West Memphis driving an ice truck during the week. When he got off work one Friday afternoon in early December 1954, he walked to his regular Friday happy hour gig at the “Dinette Lounge” and played his first set. The club was getting crowded and he recognized many familiar faces but when the band took a break, a strange man approached and extended a handshake to Cotton saying, “Hello, I’m Muddy Waters.” He’d heard about the young James Cotton. “I didn’t know what Muddy looked like but I knew it was his voice ’cause I’d listened to his records,” says Cotton. Muddy needed a harp player. Junior Wells had abruptly left the band. He asked Cotton to play the Memphis gig with him. The answer is history. Cotton remained Muddy’s harp player for 12 years.
Chess Records kept Little Walter (Jacobs) playing harmonica on Muddy’s records until 1958. Before then Muddy asked Brother Cotton to “play it like Little Walter” – note for note live on stage every night. But that wasn’t Cotton’s aim in life and finally one day he said to Muddy, “Hey man, I never will be Little Walter. You’ve just got to give me a chance to be myself.” Cotton’s star shined even brighter in 1958 when he began recording at Chess Records with Muddy on “Sugar Sweet” and “Close To You.”
Cotton developed an arresting stage presence which Muddy recognized. As a sideman, Cotton always respected Muddy’s position of authority. But they both knew Cotton had his own full-blown brand of animated showmanship that no one had ever seen before and that, coupled with his own harmonica style, commanded attention from the audience. In 1961 at the Newport Jazz Festival one of the highlights of his career came when his wild harmonica exploded on stage during his solo of the song he arranged for Muddy, “Got My Mojo Working.” You be the judge! Fortunately, the tape was running and the recording belongs to all of us.
“Muddy was a very sweet guy. I loved and respected Muddy very much. But I did all I could there, an’ it was time to move on to something else,” Cotton explains why he left the band in the latter part of 1966.
He formed the Jimmy Cotton Blues Quartet, with Otis Spann on piano, to record between gigs with Waters’s band. Their performances were captured by producer Samuel Charters on volume two of the Vanguard recording Chicago/The Blues/Today! By 1967, Cotton was primed to make it on his own and after leaving Waters’ band, Cotton toured with Janis Joplin while pursuing a solo career. Recordings for Vanguard, Prestige, and Loma preceded his official full-length album debut for Verve Records in 1967. The James Cotton Blues Band then included fleet-fingered guitarist Luther Tucker and hard-hitting drummer Sam Lay. Throwing a touch of soul into his eponymous debut set, Cotton ventured into the burgeoning blues-rock field as he remained with Verve through the end of the decade. The band mainly performed its own arrangements of popular blues and R&B from the 1950s and 1960s and also included a horn section, like that of Bobby Bland’s. On a sidenote: After Bland’s death, his son told news media that Bland had recently discovered that Cotton was his half-brother.
At his high-energy, 1970s peak as a bandleader, James Cotton was a bouncing, sweaty, whirling dervish of a bluesman, roaring his vocals and all but sucking the reeds right out of his defenseless little harmonicas with his prodigious lung power. In 1974, Cotton signed with Buddah and released 100% Cotton, one of his most relentless LPs, with Matt “Guitar” Murphy sizzling on backup. He also played harmonica on Muddy Waters’ Grammy Award–winning 1977 album Hard Again, produced by Johnny Winter.
A recording contract with Alligator Records in 1984 produced “High Compression,” which was split evenly between traditional-style Chicago blues and funkier, horn-driven material. Two years later, they released Cotton’s first Grammy nomination, “Live From Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself!” Cotton’s next Grammy nomination was for Blind Pig Records’ 1987 release “Take Me Back.”
“James Cotton: Live” was just that – and it captured the blues spirit of the world-renowned Antone’s nightclub in Austin, Texas. Cotton’s third Grammy nomination was recorded on the Antone’s label in 1988.
Alligator Records released “Harp Attack” in 1990, paired Cotton with three exalted peers: Wells, Carey Bell, and comparative newcomer Billy Branch.
“Mighty Long Time,” on the Antone’s label, was released in 1991. “A perfect illustration of James Cotton’s uncanny ability to make any song completely his own while preserving the spirit of the original,” is an appropriate quote from the liner notes by Clifford Antone.
Cotton recorded “Living the Blues” a 1994 release on Verve Records. It garnered one more Grammy nomination.
In 1994 Cotton had throat surgery followed by radiation treatments. Not long afterward he was back on the road with his James Cotton Trio, playing the music of his roots, using singers or members of his backing band as vocalists. That same year he moved back to the Memphis area, where Cotton’s life came full circle.
He was awarded a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album for Deep in the Blues in 1996. Cotton appeared on the cover of the July–August 1987 issue of Living Blues magazine. He was featured in the same publication’s 40th anniversary issue of August–September 2010.
In 2006, Cotton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame at a ceremony conducted by the Blues Foundation in Memphis. He has won or shared ten Blues Music Awards.
On March 10, 2008, he and Ben Harper performed at the induction of Little Walter into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, playing “Juke” and “My Babe” together; the induction ceremony was broadcast nationwide on VH1 Classic. On August 30, 2010, Cotton was the special guest on Larry Monroe’s farewell broadcast of Blue Monday, which he hosted on radio station KUT in Austin, Texas, for nearly 30 years.
Cotton’s studio album Giant, released by Alligator Records in late September 2010, was nominated for a Grammy Award. His album Cotton Mouth Man, released by Alligator on May 7, 2013, was also a Grammy nominee. It includes guest appearances by Gregg Allman, Joe Bonamassa, Ruthie Foster, Delbert McClinton, Warren Haynes, Keb Mo, Chuck Leavell and Colin Linden. Cotton played harmonica on “Matches Don’t Burn Memories” on the debut album by the Dr. Izzy Band, Blind & Blues Bound, released in June 2013. In 2014, Cotton won a Blues Music Award for Traditional Male Blues Artist and was also nominated in the category Best Instrumentalist – Harmonica.
Cotton moved into the 21st century as one of the last surviving originators of the Chicago blues sound, and didn’t slow his pace, releasing a series of fine albums, including Fire Down Under the Hill (2000) and Baby, Don’t You Tear My Clothes (2004), both for Telarc Records, and Giant (2010) and Cotton Mouth Man (2013), both on Alligator Records. A Best Blues Album nominee at the 2014 Grammy Awards, Cotton Mouth Man proved to be Cotton’s last album released during his lifetime; the blues harp giant died of pneumonia on March 16, 2017 at the age of 81.
In a 60 year career James Cotton worked with a long list of rock and roll’s finest, including, but most definitely not limited to: Gregg Allman, William “Billy Boy” Arnold, Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomfield, Joe Bonamassa, Paul Butterfield, Grateful Dead, Pat Hare, Howlin’ Wolf, Janis Joplin, B.B. King, Freddie King, Alexis Korner, Steve Miller, Charlie Musselwhite, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Keith Richards, Todd Rundgren, Santana, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Otis Spann, Taj Mahal, Big Mama Thornton, Jimmie Vaughan, Joe Louis Walker, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnny Winter