James Cotton, R.I.P.

Mar 19, 2017

James Cotton, the blues harmonica great renowned for his long tenure with Muddy Waters and the high-octane energy of his own festival and nightclub shows, died on Thursday, March 16, in Austin, Texas. Pneumonia was the cause of death at age 81. Cotton was born in Tunica, Mississippi, on July 1, 1935. His father was a rural preacher who died when James was five, and his mother played rudimentary harmonica in imitation of barnyard animals. Cotton heard the real thing when he caught a broadcast of Sonny Boy Williamson’s local daytime radio show. “Welcome to the Biscuit, because it’s King Biscuit Time!” was intoned weekdays at 12:15 on KFFA in West Helena, Arkansas, where Sonny Boy and Robert Jr. Lockwood played the blues and plugged King Biscuit Flour and Sonny Boy Corn Meal.

Cotton was nine when his uncle brought him to see Williamson, whose given name was Aleck “Rice” Miller. As Cotton recalled in an interview for Dan Aykroyd’s book, Elwood’s Blues, “I listened to that show and started to play the things that I heard Sonny Boy play. And then about two years later I was sitting on the company porch– my stepfather Marco had taught me how to drive tractors when I was seven, eight years old– and Marco said, ‘Well, the farm ain’t no place for you.’ And he take me to Helena, Arkansas, to meet Sonny Boy. Marco told me to tell him I was an orphan, and Sonny Boy was going for it. Marco said, ‘I just want him to get a job with you. He’s got a talent and I don’t want to see him go to waste.’ So Sonny Boy took me on. I stayed with his group until I was 15, 16 years old…Then he and his wife had a falling out for some reason. She moved up to Milwaukee, and I guess things were going bad for Sonny Boy…He liked his moonshine, and he had a fast temper and a quick pocketknife. We were playing one Saturday night and he walks up to me with a bottle of seven-grain whiskey and says, ‘Stand up and let’s drink this.’ He drank half and I drank the other half, and he gave me the band. It didn’t stay together long because I was too young to do the right thing with it. Stayed together two or three months. All the men resigned. I was a crazy, hard-headed kid, you know.”

Here’s Cotton in 1991 with guitarist Hubert Sumlin (of Howlin’ Wolf renown) and pianist Denny Freeman playing Williamson’s “Mighty Long Time.”

In the early ’50s, Cotton played around Memphis and West Helena, Arkansas, with Sonny Boy’s brother-in-law, Howlin’ Wolf, and blew some fairly amateurish harp on Wolf’s 1952 recording of Charley Patton’s Delta blues classic, “Saddle My Pony.” The following year, Cotton led a session for Sun Records and also played as a sideman with drummer Willie Nix on another date produced by Sam Phillips. Then in 1954, a few months before his 19th birthday, he recorded “Cotton Crop Blues” and “Hold Me in Your Arms,” a Sun single that ranks as a landmark of the era both for the blistering pyrotechnics and purposeful distortion of Pat Hare’s guitar playing and as an unequivocal rejection of sharecropping and plantation life.

Later that year, Muddy Waters was desperate for a harp player to replace Junior Wells, who was on the run from an Army induction notice. Muddy was in Tampa with a gig two nights later in Memphis, and he located Cotton, whose record he’d heard, at the end of his shift hauling gravel in West Memphis, Arkansas. When he approached him with the greeting, “I’m Muddy Waters,” Cotton tapped a half-pint bottle of Echo Springs in his back pocket and said, “That’s nice. I’m Jesus Christ.” But Muddy persuaded the disbelieving young harp player to meet him the following night at the Hippodrome on Beale Street. Cotton showed up and filled the bill adequately enough to get an offer. On Sunday night he played a roadhouse on the Arkansas-Missouri state line with Muddy, and on Monday he was in Chicago. moving into a second floor apartment in Muddy’s South Side brownstone. Rent was $12.50 a week. For the next eleven years, he served as the full-time harp player and a part-time singer in the Muddy Waters Blues Band.

Notwithstanding the prestige, however, Cotton had his work cut out for him in developing the chops required to fill the shoes of Little Walter. It would be five years before Cotton satisfied Muddy and Leonard Chess enough to play on one of his recording dates. Little Walter, who’d left Muddy in 1952 on the strength of his hit “Juke,” continued to play on virtually all of his sessions through 1959. The New York Times obituary on Cotton misidentified him as the harmonica player on Muddy’s 1958 studio recording of “Got My Mojo Working.” It was Little Walter, but Cotton was heard on a better-known performance of the song at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. “Mojo” soon became Waters’s concert-closer. Here’s a 1966 version from a CBC documentary.

At Newport, Waters also sang his signature song, “Hoochie Coochie Man,” which here features Cotton, Pat Hare, pianist Otis Spann, bassist Andrew Stephenson, and drummer Francis Clay. That’s Langston Hughes introducing Muddy.

Cotton was long identified with another landmark song that was first recorded at Sam Phillips’s Memphis Recording Service in 1951. “Rocket 88” was released on Chess Records by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, a group led by Ike Turner. The Chess Records single is often hailed as the first rock’n’roll record. In his biography of Muddy Waters, Can’t Be Satisfied, Robert Gordon relates a few hi-jinx tales of Cotton at the wheel of Muddy Waters’ car, and gives substance to Cotton’s claim that he was a co-writer of the song. “Cotton was a car man (he wrote one verse of “Rocket 88″) and Muddy liked that.” (I asked Phillips’s biographer Peter Guralnick about this in an interviewlast year, and he dismissed it as a fanciful claim.) I don’t know of any other references to Cotton as a writer of the tune, but when he was preparing to leave Muddy Waters in 1966, he recorded his own fabulous version of “Rocket 88” and maintained it as his signature song for the rest of his career. This was produced by Sam Charters for the Vanguard Records series, Chicago/The Blues/Today, and features Otis Spann, guitarist James “Pee Wee” Madison, and drummer S.P. Leary.

When Cotton formed his own band in 1966, he recruited Luther Tucker, the studio guitarist who’d played on dozens of Chess singles by Waters, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson over the preceding decade. Tucker was expert at backing and interweaving licks with harp players, and he and Cotton made for a dynamic duo during the four years they toured together. A few friends of mine saw Cotton’s band with Tucker at the Worcester Auditorium early in 1970, and they’ve never stopped talking about the show. Here’s why:

Tucker was succeeded in Cotton’s band by Matt “Guitar” Murphy, a Memphis-based guitar virtuoso who’d worked for several years with Memphis Slim and later had a prominent role in the Belushi-Ackroyd comedy, The Blues Brothers. Murphy’s brother Floyd played the classic guitar riff on Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” a song that Cotton often sang while opening sets for Muddy. Here he is with Murphy at Winterland in 1973. The camera’s on Cotton almost exclusively throughout this excellent twenty minute set, but Matt’s seen at 16:35 as he solos on “Georgia Swing.” The tenor player is Little Bo (not George T. Gregory as listed).

“The Creeper” was an instrumental that Cotton recorded on his 1968 album Pure Cotton. Here’s a mid-’70s performance that underscores the tireless energy that makes me recall Cotton as the hardest working frontman I’ve ever seen in blues.