Night Flight remembers James Cotton, the pioneering Mississippi-born blues harp legend

By on March 21, 2017

In 1985, the pioneering Mississippi-born blues harp legend James Cotton — who died on Thursday, March 16, 2017, at St. David’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas — appeared on an episode of “Night Flight,” joining future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Steve Miller and taking over the lead vocals during their performance of the Ike Turner-penned rockin’ blues classic, “Rocket 88.”

A representative from Cotton’s record label, Alligator Records, said the cause of death was pneumonia. He was 81.

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James Cotton and Steve Miller

James Henry Cotton was a legendary and pioneering figure in the blues world over a period of more than seven decades, touring for more than sixty of those years and recording more than thirty albums during in his lifetime too, for legendary blues and roots labels including Alligator, Vanguard and Telarc.

Cotton — known simply by his surname “Cotton” to his friends and family — was sometimes known as “Mr. Superharp” to his fans and critics, a name given to him by his drummer Kenny Johnson, who arrived to one of their 1970s-era gigs one evening with a denim jacket adorned with silver studs that spelled out “SUPERHARP” across the back. The well-deserved name stuck with him for the next f0rty years or so.

Cotton played harp (common parlance for the harmonica in the blues world) with many of the genre’s giants, including Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, B.B. King and many others, and helped establish his instrument as an integral part of modern blues.

In the process his heavily-amplified harp style — which he played with a microphone, cupped tightly in his hands — went on to influence all of the great blues-rock bands of the modern era, including the Allman Brothers, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag.

He also played with a diverse group of mostly rock artists, including Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Keith Richards, Santana, Steve Miller and Joe Bonamassa.

The Chicago Tribune said that he was a “key link on the chain of great blues harmonica players — Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Junior Wells,” adding, “Sometimes he out-rocks the Rolling Stones.”

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James Cotton at the Club Bijou in Philadelphia (circa 1982)

Cotton was the ultimate animated showman, taking command of the stage with authority and blowing everyone away with a muscular sound that kept the audience’s braced in full attention.

During what has to be one of the highlights of his career — at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival — his wild harmonica exploded on stage during his solo of the song he’d arranged for Muddy Waters, “Got My Mojo Working.”

Here he is in ’66:

The James Cotton Blues Band received numerous Grammy Award nominations, including one in 1984 for Live from Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself!, on Alligator, and also for his 1987 album Take Me Back, (Blind Pig Records), but he also won numerous awards during his career too, including a Grammy Award, for Best Traditional Blues Album, for Deep in the Blues (1996), as well as six Living Blues Awards, and ten W. C. Handy International Blues Awards (since 2006 they’ve been known as the Blues Music Awards and they are now considered among the highest accolades for musicians working in that idiom).

James Cotton was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2006.

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James Cotton, Rice Miller, Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, circa 1957 (photo by Georges Adins)

Cotton was born on July 1, 1935, on a cotton farm in Tunica, Mississippi, the youngest of eight brothers and sisters.

His parents, Hattie and Mose, were sharecroppers working on a cotton plantation. His father was also the preacher at the local Baptist church.

As a boy, he remembered hearing his mother playing the harmonica, making it squawk like a chicken and imitating freight trains, and for a time he believed those were the only two sounds the instrument made.

He fell in love with the harmonica, and was given one as a Christmas present one year when he was about five years old (it cost just fifteen cents), and before long Cotton could make the same chicken and train sounds his mother had made.

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Before long he was entertaining the other sharecroppers on his harp, while hauling water to them in the fields (he was too young to actually work in the cotton fields, so little Cotton would bring water to those who did).

Eventually, he managed to learn how to play nearly everything he heard on the radio. Cotton particularly loved Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show, “Sonny Boy’s Corn Meal and King Biscuits Show,” broadcast from KFFA, a station just across the Mississippi River in West Helena, Arkansas.

Williamson (Rice Miller) played blues harmonica live on the show every day, for just fifteen minutes.

By age seven, he was already performing for small change on the streets of nearby towns in the Mississippi Delta, playing Sonny Boy’s theme song from the radio show and, as he grew up, he added more of Sonny Boy’s songs to his own repertoire.

Both of his parents had died by the time he was nine years old, and so Cotton went to live with an uncle, who took him to meet Sonny Boy Williamson. Cotton brought along his harp and played Sonny Boy’s theme song for the musician.


Cotton remembered that first meeting later, saying: “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.”

Afterwords, he and Williamson were lifelong friends, like father and son, Cotton learning to play everything that Williamson played, after he’d heard it just once.

He even moved into Williamson’s house and lived with him, becoming not just a member of his family but also joining his touring group.

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Because he was too young to go inside the juke joints where Williamson was playing, Cotton would open the show up for his mentor on the steps outside, sometimes making more in pass-the-hat tips outside than Sonny Boy made inside at the paying gig.

By 1953, Cotton — still a teenager — launched a music career of his own, touring with Williamson and with another blues legend, the great Howlin’ Wolf.

On his tours with Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton did most of the driving himself, on old Highway 61, traveling in Wolf’s car from Nachez, Mississippi to as far north as Caruthersville, Missouri, playing all the juke joints along the way.

He began appearing on some of the recordings these legendary musicians made at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, in Memphis, Tennessee, and eventually recorded his first Sun single, “Straighten Up Baby,” the first of four songs he recorded for the label at the time.

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James Cotton and Pat Hare, Chicago 1959 (photo by Jacques Demêtre)

The other recordings were”Hold Me In Your Arms,” “Oh, Baby,” and (our favorite) “Cotton Crop Blues,” which is still just an incredible recording — so raspy, raw and heavy — which featuring Cotton’s smooth, dark blue-hued vocals and the incredibly distorted, over-amplified electric guitar played by Pat Hare (he’s got quite a life story too).

In 1954, just seventeen at the time, he was given his own fifteen-minute radio show on KWEM, in West Memphis, which was right across the Mississippi from Memphis, Tennessee.

The exposure led to Cotton forming his own bands, playing weekend gigs, and to support himself, he also drove an ice truck during the week.

In December ’54, a round-faced blues giant walked up and introduced himself at Cotton’s regular Friday evening “happy hour” gig at the Dinette Lounge.

It was Muddy Waters, who had been hearing good things about the young harp player.

Muddy Waters recruited Cotton to tour in his band, replacing his longtime blues harp player, Little Walter (Jacobs), who was by then recording on his own. Waters needed his replacement harmonica player to play like Little Walter, which was something Cotton could do, and he picked it up quickly.

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Little Walter & James Cotton (photo by Ernest Withers)

By the time Cotton was twenty, he’d already with Muddy Waters for a few years, but he hadn’t appeared on any of his recordings — Little Walter was still available for those gigs — until late 1956.

Interviewed in 2001 for a PBS documentary, “American Roots Music,” Cotton said about it: “Muddy wanted me to be just like Little Walter. I told him, ‘Hey, I’ll never be Little Walter, but I can play your music, so you’ve got to give me a chance.’ I guess he heard that.”

Cotton played with Muddy Waters for twelve years, from 1954 to 1966, in a band that also featured Jimmy Rogers on guitar and the great Otis Spann on piano (he’d later play on Spann’s 1969 album, The Blues Never Die!).

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During this time he was featured on the album At Newport (1960), and he later recorded a number of tracks for the Vanguard label’s Chicago/The Blues/Today! compilation series.

He also appears on several of the classics Waters recorded for the influential Chicago-based Chess Records, beginning in 1958, playing on classic tracks like “Sugar Sweet,” “Close to You,” “Got My Mojo Working” and “Rock Me.”

In 1966, Cotton formed his own band — the James Cotton Blues Band — with guitarist Luther Tucker and drummer Sam Lay, and recorded his self-titled debut, The James Cotton Blues Band, which was released the next year.

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Cotton embarked on tours all across the country, crossing over into the rock and blues-rock world — because of his reputation as Muddy Waters’ harp player — playing with Matt “Guitar” Murphy and Hubert Sumlin, and sharing rock bills with sixties artists like Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Steve Miller and Freddie King, among others.

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During the last half of the decade, he recorded and released three more albums — Cut You Loose! (Vanguard, 1968) and Pure Cotton Cotton In Your Ears (1968) for the Verve label.

In the 1970s, Cotton recorded for Buddah Records — 100% Cotton (1974), High Energy (1978), Alive and on the Move and Live at the Electric Lady – and continued to tour the country.

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Cotton and Brownie McGhee — sensing that they need to make sure that all of the rock artists, who were now blending the blues with heavy rock, knew where the music came from — got together and recorded “The Blues Had a Baby and They Called It Rock and Roll.”

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The track would appear on Muddy Waters’ 1977, Hard Again, which was produced by blues guitarist Johnny Winter for release by the Columbia Records-distributed Blue Sky label.

The album — also memorable for its raucous remake of Waters’s 1950s classic “Mannish Boy” and great deep blues tracks like “I Want To Be Loved” — won a Grammy Award for best ethnic or traditional recording and helped Chicago-style blues gain a wider audience.

Cotton played gigs at all the major venues on the east and west coasts, including the Fillmore East in New York, the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas, where he would later live.

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Blues greats James Cotton and Buddy Guy at the Checkerboard Lounge for Muddy Waters’ funeral wake, May 5, 1983 (photo by Kirk West)

Cotton also continued making appearances on albums by other artists, inlcuding the Steve Miller Band (see the video above), and he also welcomed Miller — as well as Johnny Winter, Dr. John, Todd Rundgren, David Sanborn and others — onto his own recordings after signing with Alligator Records in 1984, recording High Compression (1984), and Live from Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself (1986), which earned him his first solo artist Grammy nomination.

Cotton’s next Grammy nomination was for Blind Pig Records’ 1987 release, Take Me Back, followed by his third Grammy nomination in 1988, for James Cotton: Live, recorded at the world-renowned Antone’s nightclub in Austin, Texas, in 1988.

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There were subsequent releases in the 1990s on a variety of labels — Harp Attack! (Alligator, 1990), Mighty Long Time (Antone’s, 1991), and Living the Blues (Verve, 1994), which garnered one more Grammy nomination.

By this point, Cotton was halfway through his recording career, as any complete discography of his recordings will attest, but around this same time, he was forced to give up singing after he had surgery to remove polyps on his vocal cords.

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He continued to play the harmonica, in concert and on record, well into his 70s, still touring worldwide and now recording compact discs for the Telarc label (Fire Down Under The Hill, 2000; The 35th Anniversary Jam of The James Cotton Blues Band, 2002 — it also received a Grammy nomination), and Baby, Don’t You Tear My Clothes, 2004), which allowed him to expand into both country and bluegrass.

He was nominated, once again, for a Grammy Award for his 2010 Alligator Records album, Giant, and that same year he would be recognized for his contributions to the blues with a tribute concert held at New York City’s Lincoln Center, featuring many of the blues giants still alive at the time, including Taj Mahal and Chicago blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who died the following year.

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Cotton’s last album was Cotton Mouth Man, released in 2013 by Alligator, and it should come as no surprise to learn that he would earn yet another Grammy nomination for it. The album featured very heartfelt liner notes, penned by Cotton himself, which are a joy to read today as we remember him.

The same year that album was released, 2013, Cotton talked with Rolling Stone magazine about his eventual retirement:

“You work so hard to get it that once you get it, you don’t want to let it go, because at that point, it’s yours. You paid the price for it, and it’s yours. You didn’t give it up when you didn’t have a place to sleep tonight. It’s because you want to be there and you enjoy yourself.”

Cotton had planned to appear at the the Chicago Blues Festival, which is happening on June 9, 2017, and being held for the first time ever in the city’s Millennium Park, until he fell ill.

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(photo by Christopher Durst)

Cotton is survived by his wife and manager, Jacklyn Hairston Cotton, two daughters and a son — Teresa Hampton, Marshall Ann Cotton, James Patrick Cotton — and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. R.I.P.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.