Sat June 1, 2013
marc on the blues

If You Think The Old Guard Is All Gone, Think James Cotton

Over the last 50 years more great Blues musicians have played with Blues harp player James Cotton than just about anyone.

Tunica, Mississippi’s 77 year old James Cotton discovered the Blues listening to Sonny Boy Williamson II. Then a drummer, Cotton and his uncle left their hometown to travel to Helena, Arkansas, and learn from Williamson. James started out as a drummer, but the influence of Williamson makes it no surprise that Cotton soon became best known for his harmonica.

For many years James claimed he told Williamson he was an orphan and that Sonny Boy took him in and raised him. Later in life he admitted that wasn’t true. What certainly is true is that Williamson taught Cotton well and chose Cotton to take over his band when Williamson left the South for Wisconsin.

That didn’t last long as Cotton later said "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."

That probably turned out to be to Cotton’s advantage as he soon after moved to Chicago and joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band in the very early 1950s, which James lists as the true start of his music career.

James Cotton’s first solo recording came in 1953 and in 1955 he joined the top Blues band of the time, Muddy Waters. Alternating in the band with Little Walter, Cotton left the Waters’ band at the end of the 1950s and started his own. Over the next decade he had several bands from quartets to full horn bands in the tradition of Bobby Blue Bland. He also toured with Janis Joplin in the late 1960s.

I could list a lot more credits. I like to list the people an artist has played with as a way of demonstrating their importance. With James Cotton it’s not who he’s played with so much as who’s played with him. The list is…just about anyone who is anyone in the list of Blues greats of the last 50 years. There are hardly any Blues awards and honors that Cotton has not received.

He’s not finished yet, James Cotton has a new album. Due to his age and a bout with throat cancer in the mid-1990s, Cotton doesn’t sing much anymore, but his harmonica playing is as fine as ever. On the new album, Cotton Mouth Man, he is joined by a number of vocalists including Keb’ Mo’, Warren Haynes, Delbert McClinton, and Ruthie Foster.

Tune in to The Nine O’clock Blues this week and we’ll sample Cotton Mouth Man and also do a quick rundown of the headliners coming for the Greeley Blues Jam June 8th.


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