James Cotton - Biography

By J Poet

James Cotton’s place in blues history would be assured if the only thing he ever did was play harmonica with Howlin’ Wolf and in Muddy Waters’ earthshaking band of the 1950s. But in 1966 he began a fabled solo career with albums that combined soul, rock and blues with his distinct harmonica sound and powerful vocals. He’s made more than 100 albums, both as a front man and featured harmonica player and was a big part of Muddy Waters’ Grammy winning Still Hard (1977 Blue Sky) to which he contributed the standard “The Blues Had a Baby and They Called It Rock and Roll” which he co-wrote with Brownie McGhee. In 1993 Cotton was diagnosed with throat cancer, which slowed him down a bit and took the edge off of his vocals, but he’s still a master harmonica player. He’s been nominated for a Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy six times and took home a statue for Deep In The Blues (1996 Verve.) 


Cotton was born in Tunica, Mississippi in 1935, the youngest of eight children. He grew up working in the cotton fields and at night listened to his mother playing her harmonica. A 15 cent harmonica he got for a Christmas present changed his life. Local radio station KFFA was broadcasting King Biscuit Time with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller,) and Cotton learned to play his solos, and amused the other plantation workers with his music.


His parents died before he was nine, and he was raised by an uncle who knew Sonny Boy. He introduced Cotton to the older musician and Williamson schooled Cotton on the instrument and let him open shows for him at the juke joints he played. Cotton was still to young to go into the bars, so he played on the steps of the juke joints and often make more on tips than Williamson did playing regular gigs. By 13 he was living on his own in Memphis shining shoes and playing harmonica on the street. He met Howlin’ Wolf in 1948, before Wolf made it big, and became his harmonica player. With Wolf’s help he made his first recordings, four songs for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. He was only 15.


In 1952 Cotton landed a 15 minute show on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas. He played nights and drove an ice truck days until the fateful night in 1954 when Muddy waters walked up to the stage. His harmonica player, Junior Wells, had just quit. He offered Cotton the job and Cotton accepted. For the next 12 years Cotton played in the Waters band, although Little Walter got to play harp on Muddy’s Chess recordings. That changed when Waters cut Live at Newport (1960 Chess.) Cotton’s solo on “Got My Mojo Working,” a tune he introduced Waters to, brought down the house. Chess let him play on Waters’ albums after that.


In 1966 Cotton started his own band and was an immediate hit with folkies and the young white blues audience. Cut You Loose! (1966 Vanguard) brought him to the attention of Verve and he made three excellent albums for them: The James Cotton Blues Band (1967 Verve, which already showed his interest in soul music), Pure Cotton (1968 Verve) and Cotton In Your Ears (1968 Verve.) A set Cotton cut with his first band, Late Night Blues: Live at the New Penelope Club – 1967, was released by Canada’s Justin Time Records in 1998.


In the late 60s Cotton opened a show for Janis Joplin who connected him to her manager Albert Grossman. This led to booking on the hippie concert circuit where Cotton played with the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Steve Miller, Freddie and B.B. King and many others.


By the 1970s Cotton was leading a smoking band and made some of his strongest albums including 100% Cotton (1974 Buddha) with Matt “Guitar” Murphy’s frenzied ax work driving his boss to deliver some of his most scorching harp work; High Energy (1975 Buddha) cut with Allen Toussaint in New Orleans and the incendiary double LP Live and On The Move (1976 Buddha.) Cotton also took part in the Muddy Waters Grammy winning “come back” album Still Hard (1977 Blue Sky.)


Cotton signed with the blues powerhouse Alligator Records in 1984 and reached new heights. High Compression (1984 Alligator) mixed tunes recorded with an all star Chicago band including Pinetop Perkins and Magic Slim and his own band, Live From Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself! (1984 Alligator) won him his first Grammy nomination. Take Me Back (1987 Blind Pig), James Cotton: Live (1988 Antone) and Living the Blues (1994 Verve) also got Grammy nominations. Deep in the Blues (1996 Verve,) a collaboration with Joe Lewis Walker and Charlie Hayden, finally won Cotton his first Grammy.


In 1993 Cotton was diagnosed with throat cancer, and underwent radiation therapy and surgery, but it didn’t slow him down. The James Cotton Trio with pianist David Maxwell, guitarist Rico McFarland and various singers, stays busy on the circuit. He most recent efforts include Fire Down Under The Hill (2000 Telarc), The 35th Anniversary Jam of The James Cotton Blues Band (2002 Telarc), which got another Grammy nod and Baby, Don't You Tear My Clothes (2004 Telarc), a super session that included covers of country and bluegrass tunes with guests like Dave Alvin, Odetta, Doc Watson, Marcia Ball and Jim Lauderdale. In 2010 he released Giant on Alligator Records.

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