Originally appeared in The Herald-Times, 7/9/99, Bloomington, IN.
Audibles: J.J. Perry
Harmonica master James Cotton hasn’t played in Bloomington in over 10 years, but he’s managed to keep himself busy.
His last album, Deep in the Blues, won a Grammy, a W.C Handy (the blues Grammy) and Downbeat magazine awards. He has also been a guest on Conan O’Brien and David Letterman, as well as making cameos on a Rolling Stones tribute album and on Kenny Wayne Sheppard’s latest.
Cotton will perform at the Bluebird Thursday.
How does the man keep up the pace? With a raspy-whisper voice, the gentle-sounding blues great gives a simple answer. “My harmonica brought me fame. I can’t stop playing it, it’s the thing that I have to do.”
And Cotton has been doing it for years. Born in Tunica, Miss., in 1935, Cotton was exposed to the blues early on by the Helena, Ark., radio station KFFA, which broadcast blues harp genius Sonny Boy Williamson every day. Cotton’s mother, also, played harmonica, and James showed some talent for the instrument.
Cotton began following Sonny Boy around until, at age 15, he inherited Sonny Boy’s band when the unpredictable musician left town. Cotton got to meet and play with the men who would go on to shape the blues: Pinetop Perkins, Elmore James and Robert Nighthawk, among others.
But it wasn’t until 1954 that he got his big break. Muddy Waters had come to Memphis in search of a harp player after his regular sideman, Junior Wells, skipped out on him. That turned out to be the proving ground Cotton needed. It was one of Muddy’s classic bands, and Cotton stayed on for 12 years.
By 1966, Cotton had tired of playing sideman, so he branched off on his own. “I never wanted to disrespect Muddy’s music … I wanted to do something else,” Cotton said. Landing on the Verve label, Cotton’s brand of classic Chicago harp was placed in a funky R&B bag. “When the radio changed, they were doing more R&B and stuff like that, so I went to that, but the blues wouldn’t let me go.”
Though he was leading his own band, he still recorded with Waters, including Muddy’s seminal “comeback albums” on the Blue Sky imprint in the 1970s. It was here that many people got a whiff of what Cotton was cooking on the harp: A big, gutsy tone and fluid phrasing unlike many other harpists on the scene. “I knew I’d never be Little Walter, I knew I’d never be Junior Wells, I tried to be James Cotton.”
It was that full sound that earned Cotton the nickname “Mr. Superharp.” It also led him to strange encounters with fellow harp fans.
Peter Wolf, vocalist with the J. Geils Band, once asked Cotton for one of his harps, because he thought they had to be special to get the sounds James was getting from them. “I just went to the store and I bought it. And he thought I was putting him on!”
"I said go to the store and buy one. He said, No, I want this one. Here’s a hundred bucks,’" Cotton remembered. "I said no, I don’t sell my harp. He said, $200, $250. When it got to $300, I said, ‘Sold!’"
Cotton has released a steady stream of albums for the past two decades (including the classic record Harp Attack, a harp-battle between Cotton, Junior Wells, Carey Bell and Billy Branch, on Alligator Records), though throat surgery in 1991 has given him a delicate voice.
For performing, he relies on his crack all-star band to help out. With Cotton concentrating solely on harp, he has brought aboard another ex-Muddy harpist, Mojo Buford, for vocals, pianist David Maxwell (who has had success with his own album, Maximum Blues Piano) and guitarist Ray Neal of the Louisiana Neal musical clan.
Cotton is working on new songs for another album project. He also keeps his fingers on the blues pulse, and encourages interest in the harp wherever he goes. “I want everybody to be the next greatest! I want everybody to play it!”
"I’m still stuck with (the blues). I wouldn’t trade it for nothin’."
Tickets for James Cotton are $15, available through Ticketmaster or the Bluebird.