By his ninth year both of his parents had passed away and Cotton was taken to Sonny Boy Williamson by his uncle. When they met, the young fellow wasted no time – he began playing Sonny Boy’s theme song on his treasured harp. Cotton remembers that first meeting well and says, “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 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.
After a gig early one morning Sonny Boy split for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to live with his estranged wife, leaving his band to Cotton who comments, “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 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 Nachez, Mississippi, with Cotton doing most of the driving down old Highway 61. He learned the ways of the road from a second blues legend.
At the ripe old age of 15 he cut four songs at Sun Records: “Straighten Up Baby,” “Hold Me In Your Arms,” “Oh, Baby,” and “Cotton Crop Blues.”
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.
The year 1967 is well-documented as Cotton’s first year as a bandleader with the two CD’s “Seems Like Yesterday” and “Late Night Blues” recorded live in Montreal at the “New Penelope” club and unreleased until 1998 on the Justin Time label. It was the first gig on the first tour of the first James Cotton Blues Band. From that night forward Cotton embarked on tours all across the country. He had crossed over into the blues-rock genre because of his reputation as Muddy Waters’ harp player. During the last half of the 60’s decade Cotton made four records. “Cut You Loose” was released on Vanguard, “Pure Cotton,” “Cotton In Your Ears,” and “The James Cotton Blues Band” were released on the Verve label.
The hippies had arrived. They were young people with flowers in their hair and music in their hearts and they wanted to know where this rock n roll music came from. Muddy Waters and Brownie McGhee got together and wrote “The Blues Had a Baby and They Called It Rock and Roll” which answered their question. This song was on the “Hard Again” album on the Blue Sky label featuring Muddy on vocals and guitar, Johnny Winter on guitar, and Cotton on harmonica. Not to be forgotten are the miscellaneous screams provided by Johnny Winter and the miscellaneous hoots (or are they hollers?) of Cotton! It’s obvious, they had a ball while making this record. It won a Grammy in 1977. Some of Janis Joplin’s most popular songs were old blues standards, i.e., Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.” The first time Cotton opened for Janis she had never heard him play. After the show that night an excited Janis phoned Albert Grossman, who was Janis’ and Cotton’s manager at the time, in Woodstock. Then Albert phoned Cotton saying, “Janis was all excited and told me ‘Man, I REALLY dig that James Cotton, he makes me WORK!'” Cotton opened for and/or sat-in with the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Steve Miller, Freddie King, B.B. King…to name a few. He played the Fillmore East in New York, the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and almost every major venue between those two cities including the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas.
Cotton became known as the ultimate showman. By the time he got to the center of the stage and blew his first note, the audience was on it’s feet, dancing, screaming, sweating right along with him, and having a good time. That is what it was all about. “Boogie, boogie, boogie,” he’d wail from the stage. He became famous for his back flips. An old fan reminisced with him at a recent festival, “James, the first time I saw you do a back flip, man, I was shocked,” he said, shaking his head, “I’d never seen one before! Thanks.” Cotton laughed, patted his stomach, and replied, “Well, you aren’t getting the flips tonight but you WILL get the music!”
It is an old, true story – there are nights when he blows his harmonica so hard the keys fall out in his hands. A man with a good sense of humor, his old fans and friends like to remember one night when he began playing so hard his harp fell apart, “Oh, I’m just warming up,” he teased them with a big smile.
The 1970’s brought releases from Buddah Records of “100% Cotton,” “High Energy,” “Alive and on the Move,” and “Live at the Electric Lady.” All this time he was touring, crossing the country many, many times, and playing to packed houses.
The name “Superharp” has been with Cotton ever since Kenny Johnson, the drummer in Cotton’s band at the time, arrived at the gig one evening with a denim jacket adorned with silver studs, a popular clothing decoration at the time. “SUPERHARP” appeared in these silver studs across the back of the jacket and the well-deserved name has stuck with Cotton to this day – longer than the studs stuck to the jacket!
A recording contract with Alligator Records in 1984 produced “High Compression,” and two years later, 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.
“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. That same year he moved back to the Memphis area. Cotton’s life has come full circle, he has returned to the source of the fountain on two levels…his star still shines.
There is a photograph of a man wearing overalls sitting on an old porch intently playing a harmonica. If you study the photograph you can feel the depth of the man’s soul. The man is James Cotton. The porch is part of the commissary store on the plantation where he was born in Tunica, Mississippi. The depth of the man’s soul can be heard on “Deep In The Blues” on Verve Records. Grammy Award – Best Traditional Blues Album -1996
During the latter part of the last decade The James Cotton Trio – with Cotton on harmonica, David Maxwell on piano, Rico McFarland on guitar, and alternate singers, Mojo Buford and Darrell Nulisch – toured the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, and South America.The music was not as loud as it used to be. “We like to play what people can listen to and enjoy,” Cotton says.
When one looks at Cotton’s audience in his theatre, university, and festival venues, it consists of three generations – the youngest is usually holding a harp. My guess is Cotton finds that a beautiful sight.
Cotton has made three CDs on the Telarc label. “Fire Down Under The Hill” was released in March 2000. Recorded at the end of 2001 and released in May of 2002 “The 35th Anniversary Jam of The James Cotton Blues Band” received a Grammy nomination. Many of Cotton’s friends are singing and playing with him honoring the 35 years since Cotton left Muddy’s band to front his own band. His latest CD, “Baby, Don’t You Tear My Clothes,” has given Cotton the chance to branch out and play not only blues, but also, country and bluegrass – a great surprise to all! He is joined by a premier list of guests and friends. It was released in May 2004.
Cotton has always been known for having one of the best bands in the business. The members are: Darrell Nulisch, vocals; Tom Holland, guitar and vocals; Noel Neal, bass; and Jerry Porter, drums. Cotton’s eyes light up when he talks about his band, “My audience always tells me how I’m doing. If I look out there and don’t like what I see, I work harder.” His audiences are still on their feet, they enjoy themselves as much as he does, and there are still standing ovations night after night. You will have a memorable evening with an international treasure and a true Living Legend of the Blues.
In 2010 Cotton reunited with Alligator Records and produced another Grammy nominated CD – GIANT – which is a ferocious blast of brash power blues from Cotton with his touring band.
Fact: the year 2014 is Cotton’s 70th year in the entertainment business. What an amazing adventure this man is experiencing with his little harmonica. Congratulations SUPERHARP!
-Copyright 2014 by Jacklyn Hairston
“World renowned harmonica player James Cotton blew up his usual storm on harmonica. His spirit, stamina and sound make for a potent combination. …he delivers with authority.”—Washington Post
“Cotton is a key link on the chain of great blues harmonica players – Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Junior Wells. Sometimes he out-rocks the Rolling Stones.”- Chicago Tribune
“Since 1966 James Cotton has been carrying the Chicago sound to the world. On Giant, he pours 75 years of living into that harmonica and out comes devastating and powerful blasts of notes undiminished by age.”- USA TODAY
“Legendary master of the blues harmonica. Wowed, you will be.”- Time Out NY
“Sweat and grit …Cotton can blow down doors with Chicago style blues.”- Austin Chronicle
“Cotton can blow like hell…dazzling.”- Chicago Sun-Times
“A living musical legend, Cotton is at the top of his game. Giant is the work of a master…Essential, fiery and propulsive. Cotton brings the heat with his true mastery of the harmonica. Magnificent, poignant and beautiful.”- Blurt
“Distinctive wail…fat-toned style. Sheer propulsive power…Cotton can drive a song with his harp, squeezing out a flurry of notes. His true genius is his ability to select the perfect note. Cotton is a virtuoso of the blues. Giant is one of the best albums of the year.”- Blues Revue
“Cotton’s solos are forceful, squarely stabbing the notes and chords. His phrases are full of tonal variety, summoning a steamship, a train whistle, a saxophone, a hurricane and an octave-jumping bird. Cotton’s not through creating by a long shot.”- DownBeat
“Cotton’s long, fabled career is unrivaled in terms of its historic import….a name that is mentioned alongside some of the very best performers ever to play the instrument. Cotton’s playing has cemented his place in the top tier of blues harmonica masters: that muscular tone, those brawny wails, the stinging high note bends. …sends a shiver down the spine. Fiery, inimitable, ferocious attack, dominance and power. The well of talent he draws from is as deep as the blues he plays.”- Living Blues
“The finest blues harmonica player alive.”- Boston Herald