Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 1 July 1935, Tunica MS; d 16 March 2017, Austin TX) Blues harmonica player, called 'Cotton' by his friends. His earliest memories included his mother playing chicken and train sounds on her harmonica. His Christmas present one year was a harmonica that cost 15 cents, and it wasn't long before he mastered the chicken and the train. King Biscuit Time began broadcasting live on KFFA, just across the Mississippi River in Helena, Arkansas; the star of the show was the harmonica legend, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), and young Cotton was listening. By his ninth year both parents had died; Cotton’s uncle took him to Sonny Boy, and the child played Sonny Boy's theme song on his 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. There were a great many juke joints in the South back then, and Sonny Boy played in nearly every one. Cotton was too young to go inside, but he would open for Sonny Boy on the steps, sometimes making more money in tips outside than Sonny Boy made inside.

After Sonny Boy split for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to live with his estranged wife, all the teenaged Cotton had was his harmonica. Beale Street in Memphis was alive with the blues and Cotton played on the street for tips, as well as shining shoes. One night he heard Howlin' Wolf at the Top Hat in Black Fish, Arkansas; they worked together and played the juke joints from Caruthersville, Missouri, to Natchez, Mississippi, with Cotton doing most of the driving up and down old Highway 61. At age 15 Cotton cut four songs at Sun Records in Memphis. KWEM Radio in West Memphis, Arkansas, directly across the river, gave Cotton a 15-minute radio show in 1952 at age 17. Cotton had gigs every weekend but drove an ice truck during the week. One Friday in early December 1954, he played his first happy hour set at the Dinette Lounge, and Muddy Waters came up and introduced himself. Muddy needed a harp player. Cotton stayed with Muddy for 12 years.

Chess Records kept Little Walter [Jacobs] playing harmonica on Muddy's records until 1958. Muddy asked Cotton to 'play it like Little Walter' - note for note, live on stage every night. Finally he began recording with Muddy on 'Sugar Sweet' and 'Close To You.' In 1960 at the Newport Jazz Festival his wild harmonica exploded on stage during his solo on 'Got My Mojo Working.' Fortunately, the tape was running. Cotton finally left Muddy in late 1966, and the first gig on the first tour of the James Cotton Blue Band was captured at the New Penelope club in Montreal in 1967: two albums (Seems Like Yesterday and Late Night Blues) were not released until 1998 on the Justin Time label. His first commercial releases were Cut You Loose on Vanguard, while Pure Cotton, Cotton In Your Ears and The James Cotton Blues Band were all on Verve.

Muddy Waters and Brownie McGhee wrote 'The Blues Had A Baby And They Called It Rock and Roll', and the song was featured on Muddy’s album Hard Again on Blue Sky, with Johnny Winter on guitar, and Cotton on harmonica: it won a Grammy in 1977. Cotton opened for and/or sat in with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Steve Miller, Freddie King, and B.B. King; he played the Fillmores East and West and almost every major venue between them, including the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas. The 1970s brought four albums on Buddah: 100% Cotton, High Energy, Alive And On The Move, and Live At the Electric Lady. A contract with Alligator produced High Compression in 1984, and two years later, Cotton's first Grammy nomination, Live From Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself! Cotton's next Grammy nomination was in 1987 for Take Me Back on Blind Pig; his third was for James Cotton: Live, recorded at Antone's in Austin, Texas, and released on Antone’s label. Alligator released Harp Attack in 1990, Mighty Long Time was on Antone's in 1991, and Living The Blues on Verve in 1994.

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, having moved back to the Memphis area. He finally bagged his first Grammy for Deep In The Blues on Verve in 1996. The trio, David Maxwell on piano, Rico McFarland on guitar, and alternate singers, Mojo Buford and Darrell Nulisch, toured the world; CDs on the Telarc label have been Fire Down Under The Hill (2000), The 35th Anniversary Jam of The James Cotton Blues Band (2002, another Grammy nomination), and the celebratory Baby, Don't You Tear My Clothes (2004, with many happy guests). Cotton settled in Austin in 2002. The music wasn’t as loud as it used to be, but it still got the crowd on its feet, until pneumonia caught up with James Cotton.