James Cotton was known as one of the world’s most popular and renowned harmonica players in the world. He managed to have one of the longest blues careers around and played to packed houses.
James Cotton was born on the Bonnie Blue Plantation in Tunica County, Mississippi on July 1, 1935. His parents were Mose and Hattie Cotton and James was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters. The young Cotton grew up working in the cotton fields with his family and listening to his father preach in a local Baptist Church. Although not in music, he remembered listening to his mother play the harmonica to make him happy. One Christmas his parents surprised him with a small harmonica as a gift.
Listening to King Biscuit Time on KFFA out of Helena the little boy became influenced by the harmonica playing of Sonny Boy Williamson and knew that was his future. He would sit and play the harmonica as his family and others worked in the fields.
After his parents died, James Cotton was taken to Sonny Boy Williamson by his uncle. Looking at the little nine year old play the harmonica, Sonny Boy decided to take him in. From then on James was like a son to Sonny Boy and went everywhere with him. Because he was too young to go inside the juke joints he would play sitting on the front steps as customers came in. One day the duo split apart though when Sonny Boy moved to Chicago. A young James Cotton was actually left with the band of Sonny Boy Williamson, but could not keep them together because of his youth. James was now on his own as a teenager. Because Beale Street was a lively and money making spot, he decided to go there to start earning a living by playing the harmonica.
The young James Cotton
It was on Beale Street that James Cotton met his next mentor. His name was Howlin’ Wolf and the duo began to play at clubs all over the Mid-South. By the age of fifteen, he had cut four songs. KWEN, a radio station in West Memphis, Arkansas gave Cotton a fifteen minute radio show in 1952. This radio program opened up an even wider audience to the young man. Although he had gigs every weekend, money was still scarce so he also drove a truck. One Friday night he met Muddy Waters at a club in Memphis who offered him a position in his band to replace Junior Wells. James Cotton would be the harmonica player for Muddy Waters for the next twelve years. In 1958 Muddy asked him to play harmonica at Chess Records on his songs, “Sugar Sweet” and “Close to you.”
In 1967 James Cotton became a band leader with two records, “Seems Like Yesterday” and “Late Night Blues recorded in Canada. From then on, the James Cotton Blues Band started touring around the world.
James Cotton played with a number of rock and roll artists through the next two decades including Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Santana and the Grateful Dead. Cotton became known as the ultimate showman. Although playing with other artists, he kept releasing new music like “Live at the Electric Lady.” He even earned the new nickname, “Superharp.”
Throughout the early nineties James Cotton received numerous Grammy nominations for his music. After having throat cancer surgery in 1994 James moved back to the Memphis area. Although he slowed down, James Cotton continued to play across the Mid-South.
James Cotton won a number of blues awards over his lifetime and a 1996 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album with his CD, “Deep in the Blues.” He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006 and has a marker on the Blues Trail in Tunica County. James Cotton passed away on March 16, 2017 in Austin, Texas. He is buried at Texas State Cemetery
Biography of James Cotton from his official website.
James Cotton – Mississippi Blues Trail
James Cotton – Find a Grave