James Henry Cotton passed away in March 2017, putting a cap on a career that spanned nearly 70 years.
He was born on July 1 of 1935, smack in the middle of what would be a long hot summer. The youngest of Hattie and Mose Cotton’s eight children, James spent his first years in Tunica, Mississippi, where, when his father wasn’t preaching, he, like his wife and older children, was picking cotton.
One can only imagine how hot it was in those fields and, as soon as he was able, James joined the family, hauling water to the thirsty sharecroppers, and playing a tune or two on his harmonica.
It was Hattie who introduced her son to the harp. She knew just enough to mimic the sounds of chickens squawking and trains making their way across the Mississippi Delta. James would say that, for a long while, he thought that was all there was to the instrument, until he got one for Christmas and started playing.
By the time he was seven, he was performing for small change around town, but his world would grow considerably larger when his uncle introduced him to Sonny Boy Williamson.
James had heard Williamson, (aka Rice Miller) on King Biscuit Time, a fifteen-minute radio show out of Helena, Arkansas, and he was a major fan.
By some accounts, Cotton told Sonny Boy that he’d been orphaned at nine, which was not (again, by some accounts) true. Whatever the case and circumstance, Williamson was impressed by James’ ability to play many of his idol’s tunes, including the King Biscuit Time theme song. Cotton is quoted as saying, “I walked up and played it note for note, and he looked at that. He had to pay attention.”
Sonny Boy WiIliamson would go on to play a major part in Cotton’s life, both on and off the stage, treating him like family, taking him on tour, and eventually leaving the band in the young boy’s hands.
By his own admission, Cotton, who was still in his teens at the time, and much younger than the rest of the band, was too “young and crazy” to take on that responsibility, and the band quickly disbanded.
What to do, what to do? Well, you know what they say: When the goin’ gets tough, the tough get goin’. And it didn’t take long for James to travel to nearby Black Fish, Arkansas, where another of his idols, Howlin’ Wolf, was playing at a place called The Top Hat. Cotton had been there with Williamson’s band before but, being underage, had been relegated to playing for tips on the steps just outside the club.
Now, still underage, he was somehow able to convince whoever was at the door that night to let him inside, where he hoped to sit in with the band. Cotton got his wish-and more, sitting in and then setting out with Howlin’ Wolf and his group, as they played their way down old highway 61 and beyond.
By the mid-1950s, Cotton had made his way to the big city – Memphis, Tennessee – where he found work at the local clubs, eking out a living, even shining shoes to make ends meet.
It’s not altogether a secret that in the mid-1950s, Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios was home to some major players: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins would all make their way up the charts in that hole-in-the-wall studio. And it was there that, over the course of two years, James Cotton would lay down four songs: “Straighten Up Baby”, “Hold Me In Your Arms”, “Cotton Crop Blues” and “Oh Baby”. They would be the first in a long string of tunes Cotton would record under his own name.
Things were, if not zooming, at least ticking along, when, one night in 1954, fate lent a hand, when Muddy Waters arrived in the Bluff City to play a gig, and happened into the club where Cotton was playing.
They say timing in life is everything, and with Little Walter’s recent departure, there was an opening in Waters’ band. The blues man listened and liked what he heard, hiring Cotton on the spot to fill the vacancy.
Of that life-changing event, Cotton would say, “I never dreamed I’d be going to Chicago or playing with Muddy Waters, but I played in Memphis that Saturday night, and that Sunday morning we were off to Chicago.”
But filling Little Walter’s shoes was no walk in the park, and Cotton was the first to admit that he had to work hard at upping his game, becoming a better musician in the process.
Up until that time he had been known as much for his singing as his playing, but he quickly gained a following when fans discovered his unique style. Over the next 12 years that unmistakable, high-voltage sound would become legendary, thanks in part to such classic Chess recordings as “Rock Me”, and the 1960 version of “Got My Mojo Working”, which was recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival that year.
By the mid-1960s James Cotton was ready to strike out on his own. “I respected [Waters] so much,” he would later tell the LA Times, “but there were other things that I wanted to play, and I would never mistreat him with his music. If it was rock ’n’ roll, he didn’t want to touch it.”
Forming the James Cotton Blues Band, along with Luther Tucker and Matt “Guitar” Murphy, gave Cotton the ability to make his own kind of music. Today, you might call it fusion. Back then, some would call it risky. Not here. Not there. Not one thing or another. A little rock. A lot of blues. Different.
As it turned out, different was good and, before long, the group was performing alongside some of the biggest names of the day. We’re talking Cream, the Grateful Dead, Santana, Steve Miller, Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin, as well as some major bluesmen like B.B. King and Freddie King.
Big names. Good times. Great music, and a couple of nods from Billboard Magazine along the way, when the band’s 1967 album “The James Cotton Blues Band”, and 1975’s “100% Cotton” albums uncharacteristically landed on the magazine’s Top 200 Albums chart. Back then, blues albums seldom found their way to the big board.
Cotton was in high cotton, reuniting with the Muddy Waters band in between tours, and lending his unmistakable sound to the group’s Grammy award-winning album, “Hard Again”, in 1977. Produced by Johnny Winter, the album is credited with introducing a whole new generation to Chicago-style blues.
But as good as Cotton was on vinyl, he was even better live and in person, where fans saw the full extent of his personality and incredible showmanship.
“In his day, he was one of the best showmen around,” says Charlie Musselwhite, who first met Cotton in the early 1960s. “He put on a hell of a show, and worked real hard at delivering the music.”
Those who were lucky enough to see Cotton perform – especially in the early years – remember his back-flips, as he made his way around the stage, head bobbin’, legs tappin’, his hands cupped around the mic and harp, amplifying and super-sizing every note. That hard-driving sound would become his trademark.
“James had a killer tone no matter what he played through,” says Charlie, adding, “I remember one night when we were in a club where Paul Butterfield was playing. Paul knew James wanted to sit in, so, before he called him up, Paul really tore it up. He was playing his tail off. Paul was on fire. Then he invited James to the stage, and WHOA!!! It was like a tornado hit the stage. In probably less than a minute, I’m not sure anybody even remembered what Paul had just done.”
Though throat cancer forced Cotton to give up singing in the mid-90s, and, in his later years, he no longer flipped and zipped across the stage, the sound that Charlie Musselwhite remembers so well was as strong as ever. You need only check out a 2012 video of Cotton and Keith Richards, rehearsing for an upcoming performance to see and hear that unwavering sound.
Over the course of his career, James Cotton would record more than two dozen albums, and perform at hundreds of musical venues including all of the major blues and rock festivals.
There were also the awards, lots of them.
In 1984, the James Cotton Blues Band received its first Grammy nomination for “Live from Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself! ” Three years later, there would be a second nom for Cotton’s “Take Me Back” album.
In 1997, he took home a Grammy for his “Deep in the Blues” album and, in 2013, at the ripe old age of 78, he received yet another Grammy nomination for “Cotton Mouth Man”.
There were magazine covers and articles as well, along with all manner of accolades: among them, 2010’s All Star Salute at New York’s Lincoln Center, and the B.B. King [lifetime achievement] award at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal in 2015.
Meanwhile, back in Memphis, Cotton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006, in addition to winning or sharing ten Blues Music Awards. And it is in Memphis that a brass note bearing his name resides on Beale Street’s Music Walk of Fame, a shining tribute to the man and his music. It sits just across the street from B.B. King’s Blues Club and the notes of two other harmonica legends – Pete Pedersen, and the aforementioned Charlie Musselwhite.
James Henry “Superharp” Cotton played a key role in introducing millions of rock fans to the blues, and blues fans to a style and sound that blurred the lines, and raised the bar, not just for harmonica players but for music makers and risk takers throughout the world.
We will miss him.