“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 Magazine.
James Cotton, part of a great generation of bluesmen and women born in the ’20’s and 30’s, died on March 16, 2017, at the age of 81. Cotton was not some obscure purveyor of the blues but an honest-to-God great, up there with B.B King and Howlin’ Wolf. In fact, he started out playing harp with Sonny Boy Williamson II and wound up in Wolf’s band in the ’50’s.
Cotton’s (everybody called him Cotton) life is almost textbook bluesman 101. Born (in 1935) and raised in the Mississippi delta, according to his website biography, “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.”
Instead of hanging out with his religious parents Cotton preferred to stay with his bachelor uncle, Wiley Green, who – straight out of central casting – made bootleg whiskey, gambled, and played blues piano.
In 1941 – when Cotton was six – blues guitarist Robert Lockwood, Jr. and harmonica great Sonny Boy Williamson II wanted to air a local blues show on station KFFA out of Helena, Arkansas. The station owner liked the idea but knew he needed a sponsor and approached the Interstate Grocer Company, who distributed King Biscuit Flour. And thus, in November of 1941 just prior to the US entry into World War II, was the King Biscuit Time radio show launched.
Sonny Boy and Lockwood, Jr. used to play the blues live on the radio as part of the “King Biscuit Entertainers.” (Check out this silent video of them playing that I stumbled on). They were later joined by Joseph William “Pinetop” Perkins who went on to play piano for Muddy Waters, among others.
The sound and style these guys got are considered by some to be the beginning of modern blues bands. (Lockwood learned to play guitar directly from Robert Johnson and hails from Levon Helm’s (of The Band) hometown of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas.)
According to Cotton’s biography, “The young Cotton pressed his little ear to the old radio speaker. He recognized the harmonica sound AND discovered something – the harp did more! (Then play chicken and trains!) Realizing this, a profound change came over him, and since that moment, Cotton and his harp have been inseparable – the love affair had begun.”
Cotton met Sonny Boy and played his radio theme song back to him note-for-note. Sonny Boy took Cotton (whose parents had by then died) under his wing and allowed him to “open” for him, really just playing outside on the steps of clubs because he was too young. Near as I can tell, at this point, Cotton was in his early teens.
At some point, Williamson headed north, leaving a young Cotton in charge of his band. “He just gave it to me,” Cotton said. “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.”
By 1950, Cotton had made his way to Memphis, which was only about 40 miles up the road out on Highway 61. Route 61 used to run all the way up through Duluth, Minnesota to the US-Canada border back when Bob Dylan was growing up in Hibbing. Hence, “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Memphis is where Cotton first met and played with bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. As I recount in my review of Peter Gurlnick’s book about Sam Phillips, by 1951 Wolf was recording at Sun studios. Here is James playing harp on his first studio recording, Wolf’s “Saddle My Pony:”
Cotton wound up recording four songs at Sun on none of which he played harp. James is barely mentioned in Guralnick’s book so near as I can tell, Sam preferred to feature lost-to-musical history pioneer guitarist, Pat Hare, who played in an early band with Junior Parker.
At the ripe old age of 17, Cotton had his own radio show in West Memphis, Arkansas. In 1954, while playing a gig at a local club, he was approached by Muddy Waters who had just lost his harp player, Junior Wells.
And so Cotton wound up working for Muddy well into the ’60’s. This was an interesting situation as Muddy was featuring Little Walter playing on his recordings, but Cotton playing live. It wasn’t until about 1957 or 1958 that Cotton – basically tired of trying to be Little Walter – insisted on playing on a recording.
In explaining why he moved on in in 1966, Cotton said, “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.” And so in that year, the 31-year-old bluesman formed the James Cotton band.
This being the ’60’s, with a blues boom inspired by the British Invasion, Cotton soon found himself touring with acts such as Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. Janis’ manager told Cotton that “Janis was all excited and told me ‘Man, I REALLY dig that James Cotton, he makes me WORK.”
He played at the Fillmore East numerous times on bills with Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Taj Mahal, Vanilla Fudge. And, in what may be my favorite set of artists (1968) to be on one bill at the Fillmore – Cotton, Creedence and Deep Purple!
Here is some hot sauce from Cotton, a song called “The Creeper.” If this doesn’t move you even a little bit, check your pulse. As likely as not, you are dead. All harp here, no vocals, no bullshit. (Supposedly Cotton got the nickname “Mr. Superharp” when his drummer showed up at a gig in the ’70’s with that phrase embroidered on his jacket.)
Cotton reunited again in 1977 with Muddy for the great Grammy-winning Hard Again album, produced by Johnny Winter. (The title came from how Muddy felt about playing this music which was, well, you know.)
Somewhere back when I was playing blues around Boston, a harmonica player I knew whose name is lost in the sands of time, lent me a live Cotton album called Live and On the Move. I could not fucking stop listening to “Flip, Flop, and Fly” which became somewhat of a signature song for Cotton. On this one, he just sings. But this shows you what an exciting performer he was. You want to be there:
Rolling Stone: Cotton continued to record throughout the Eighties, including a run on Alligator Records, and won the Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy for his Deep in the Blues LP in 1997. His most recent album was Cotton Mouth Man, which came out in 2013 and was nominated for a Grammy. Guests included Gregg Allman, Joe Bonamassa, Ruthie Foster, Chuck Leavell, Keb Mo and Warren Haynes
Cotton earned six Living Blues Awards in his lifetime and ten Blues Music Awards. New York City’s Lincoln Center recognized his contributions to blues with a tribute concert in 2010 that featured Hubert Sumlin, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and others. Five years later, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal gave Cotton its B.B. King Award for his contributions to the blues.
Oh, one more thing. King Biscuit Time? That radio show? You think maybe it’s a relic of a long-gone era in our musical history? Guess again. Not only is it still airing, the guy who started hosting it in 1951, “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, is, at the age of 91, STILL HOSTING IT! And, now with the Internet, KFFA reaches way past the Mississipi Delta. Now, how about that?
Historical marker in Tunica, MS.