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 harmonica sound 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 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!
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
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.
The year 2016 is Cotton’s 72st year in the entertainment business. What an amazing adventure this man is experiencing with his little harmonica. Congratulations SUPERHARP!