James Cotton (called Cotton by his friends) was born on the first day of July,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 few years 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 harmonicasound AND discovered something - the harp did more!
Realizing this, a profound change came over him, and since that moment, Cotton
and his harp have been inseparable - the love affair had begun. Soon he was able
to play Sonny Boy's theme song from the radio show and, as he grew so did his
repertoire of Sonny Boy's other songs. Mississippi summers are ghastly, the heat
is unrelenting. He was too young to actually work in the cotton fields, so little
Cotton would bring water to those who did. When it was time for him to take a
break from his job, he would sit in the shadow of the plantation foreman's horse
and play his harp. His music became a source of joy for his first audience. James
Cotton's star began to shine brightly at a very early age.
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
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
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
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
"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,
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
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
"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.
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 line-up for the past several years has been: Slam Allen, guitar, vocals;
Tom Holland, guitar; Charles Mack, bass; Mark Mack, drums; and, of course, Superharp,
James Cotton. His 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.
Fact: the year 2007 is Cotton's 63rd year in the entertainment business. What
an amazing adventure this man is experiencing with his little harmonica. Congratulations
-Copyright 2007 by Jacklyn Hairston