Sunday, March 19, 2017

James Cotton - 1935-2017 - Rest In Peace

James Cotton 
Rest In Peace

I just want everybody to have a good time, because I'm goin' out to have a good time. I'm going to go have some fun.
- James Cotton -

James Cotton (called Cotton by his friends) was born on the first day of July,1935, in Tunica, Mississippi. He was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters who grew up in the cotton fields working beside their mother, Hattie, and their father, Mose. On Sundays Mose was the preacher in the area’s Baptist church. Cotton’s earliest memories include his mother playing chicken and train sounds on her harmonica and for a few years he thought those were the only two sounds the little instrument made. His Christmas present one year was a harmonica, it cost 15 cents, and it wasn’t long before he mastered the chicken and the train. King Biscuit Time, a 15-minute radio show, began broadcasting live on KFFA, a station just across the Mississippi River in Helena, Arkansas. The star of the show was the harmonica legend, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). The young Cotton pressed his little ear to the old radio speaker. He recognized the harmonica sound AND discovered something – the harp did more! Realizing this, a profound change came over him, and since that moment, Cotton and his harp have been inseparable – the love affair had begun. Soon he was able to play Sonny Boy’s theme song from the radio show and, as he grew so did his repertoire of Sonny Boy’s other songs. Mississippi summers are ghastly, the heat is unrelenting. He was too young to actually work in the cotton fields, so little Cotton would bring water to those who did. When it was time for him to take a break from his job, he would sit in the shadow of the plantation foreman’s horse and play his harp. His music became a source of joy for his first audience. James Cotton’s star began to shine brightly at a very early age.
By his ninth year both of his parents had passed away and Cotton was taken to Sonny Boy Williamson by his uncle. When they met, the young fellow wasted no time – he began playing Sonny Boy’s theme song on his treasured harp. Cotton remembers that first meeting well and says, “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.” The two harp players were like father and son from then on. “I just watched the things he’d do, because I wanted to be just like him. Anything he played, I played it,” he remembers.

There were dozens of juke joints in the South at the time and Sonny Boy played in nearly every one in Mississippi (pronounced “miz-sip-ee”) and Arkansas. Now he had an opening act! Because Cotton was too young to go inside he would “open” for Sonny Boy on the steps of these juke joints, sometimes making more money in tips outside than Sonny Boy did at the gig inside.

After a gig early one morning Sonny Boy split for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to live with his estranged wife, leaving his band to Cotton who comments, “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.”

There was no one to care for the teenager – no real home to go to – but young Cotton had his harmonica. Beale Street in Memphis was alive with the blues and Cotton played on the street for tips. Also, he put a mean shine on any paying customer’s shoes. When he’d been with Sonny Boy, they had played a juke joint named “The Top Hat” in Black Fish, Arkansas. One night he heard Howlin’ Wolf was playing there and he decided it was time to meet him. He was still underage but the owner let him through the door this time. He liked the young musician plus he knew if Cotton sat in with Howlin’ Wolf the good times would roll even farther, deep into the night. Cotton got along well with Howlin’ Wolf from the moment they met and they began to play the juke joints as far north as Caruthersville, Missouri, and as far south as Nachez, Mississippi, with Cotton doing most of the driving down old Highway 61. He learned the ways of the road from a second blues legend.

At the ripe old age of 15 he cut four songs at Sun Records: “Straighten Up Baby,” “Hold Me In Your Arms,” “Oh, Baby,” and “Cotton Crop Blues.”

KWEM, a radio station in West Memphis, Arkansas, directly across the Mississippi River from Memphis, gave Cotton a 15-minute radio show in 1952. This was a great achievement for a bluesman who was only 17 years old. It gave him a wider audience; not everyone went to juke houses, but the radio was on everyday from 3-3:15 p.m. Mississippi and Arkansas held the very essence of the blues in their cotton fields. People wanted to hear their own music.

Cotton had gigs every weekend but to help support himself better he found a job in West Memphis driving an ice truck during the week. When he got off work one Friday afternoon in early December 1954, he walked to his regular Friday happy hour gig at the “Dinette Lounge” and played his first set. The club was getting crowded and he recognized many familiar faces but when the band took a break, a strange man approached and extended a handshake to Cotton saying, “Hello, I’m Muddy Waters.” He’d heard about the young James Cotton. “I didn’t know what Muddy looked like but I knew it was his voice ’cause I’d listened to his records,” says Cotton. Muddy needed a harp player. Junior Wells had abruptly left the band. He asked Cotton to play the Memphis gig with him. The answer is history. Cotton remained Muddy’s harp player for 12 years.

Chess Records kept Little Walter (Jacobs) playing harmonica on Muddy’s records until 1958. Before then Muddy asked Brother Cotton to “play it like Little Walter” – note for note live on stage every night. But that wasn’t Cotton’s aim in life and finally one day he said to Muddy, “Hey man, I never will be Little Walter. You’ve just got to give me a chance to be myself.” Cotton’s star shined even brighter in 1958 when he began recording at Chess Records with Muddy on “Sugar Sweet” and “Close To You.”

Cotton developed an arresting stage presence which Muddy recognized. As a sideman, Cotton always respected Muddy’s position of authority. But they both knew Cotton had his own full-blown brand of animated showmanship that no one had ever seen before and that, coupled with his own harmonica style, commanded attention from the audience. In 1961 at the Newport Jazz Festival one of the highlights of his career came when his wild harmonica exploded on stage during his solo of the song he arranged for Muddy, “Got My Mojo Working.” You be the judge! Fortunately, the tape was running and the recording belongs to all of us.

“Muddy was a very sweet guy. I loved and respected Muddy very much. But I did all I could there, an’ it was time to move on to something else,” Cotton explains why he left the band in the latter part of 1966.

The year 1967 is well-documented as Cotton’s first year as a bandleader with the two CD’s “Seems Like Yesterday” and “Late Night Blues” recorded live in Montreal at the “New Penelope” club and unreleased until 1998 on the Justin Time label. It was the first gig on the first tour of the first James Cotton Blues Band. From that night forward Cotton embarked on tours all across the country. He had crossed over into the blues-rock genre because of his reputation as Muddy Waters’ harp player. During the last half of the 60’s decade Cotton made four records. “Cut You Loose” was released on Vanguard, “Pure Cotton,” “Cotton In Your Ears,” and “The James Cotton Blues Band” were released on the Verve label.

The hippies had arrived. They were young people with flowers in their hair and music in their hearts and they wanted to know where this rock n roll music came from. Muddy Waters and Brownie McGhee got together and wrote “The Blues Had a Baby and They Called It Rock and Roll” which answered their question. This song was on the “Hard Again” album on the Blue Sky label featuring Muddy on vocals and guitar, Johnny Winter on guitar, and Cotton on harmonica. Not to be forgotten are the miscellaneous screams provided by Johnny Winter and the miscellaneous hoots (or are they hollers?) of Cotton! It’s obvious, they had a ball while making this record. It won a Grammy in 1977. Some of Janis Joplin’s most popular songs were old blues standards, i.e., Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.” The first time Cotton opened for Janis she had never heard him play. After the show that night an excited Janis phoned Albert Grossman, who was Janis’ and Cotton’s manager at the time, in Woodstock. Then Albert phoned Cotton saying, “Janis was all excited and told me ‘Man, I REALLY dig that James Cotton, he makes me WORK!'” Cotton opened for and/or sat-in with the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Steve Miller, Freddie King, B.B. King…to name a few. He played the Fillmore East in New York, the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and almost every major venue between those two cities including the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas.

Cotton became known as the ultimate showman. By the time he got to the center of the stage and blew his first note, the audience was on it’s feet, dancing, screaming, sweating right along with him, and having a good time. That is what it was all about. “Boogie, boogie, boogie,” he’d wail from the stage. He became famous for his back flips. An old fan reminisced with him at a recent festival, “James, the first time I saw you do a back flip, man, I was shocked,” he said, shaking his head, “I’d never seen one before! Thanks.” Cotton laughed, patted his stomach, and replied, “Well, you aren’t getting the flips tonight but you WILL get the music!”

It is an old, true story – there are nights when he blows his harmonica so hard the keys fall out in his hands. A man with a good sense of humor, his old fans and friends like to remember one night when he began playing so hard his harp fell apart, “Oh, I’m just warming up,” he teased them with a big smile.

The 1970’s brought releases from Buddah Records of “100% Cotton,” “High Energy,” “Alive and on the Move,” and “Live at the Electric Lady.” All this time he was touring, crossing the country many, many times, and playing to packed houses.

The name “Superharp” has been with Cotton ever since Kenny Johnson, the drummer in Cotton’s band at the time, arrived at the gig one evening with a denim jacket adorned with silver studs, a popular clothing decoration at the time. “SUPERHARP” appeared in these silver studs across the back of the jacket and the well-deserved name has stuck with Cotton to this day – longer than the studs stuck to the jacket!

A recording contract with Alligator Records in 1984 produced “High Compression,” and two years later, Cotton’s first Grammy nomination, “Live From Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself!”

Cotton’s next Grammy nomination was for Blind Pig Records’ 1987 release “Take Me Back.”

“James Cotton: Live” was just that – and it captured the blues spirit of the world-renowned Antone’s nightclub in Austin, Texas. Cotton’s third Grammy nomination was recorded on the Antone’s label in 1988.

Alligator Records released “Harp Attack” in 1990.

“Mighty Long Time,” on the Antone’s label, was released in 1991. “A perfect illustration of James Cotton’s uncanny ability to make any song completely his own while preserving the spirit of the original,” is an appropriate quote from the liner notes by Clifford Antone.

Cotton recorded “Living the Blues” a 1994 release on Verve Records. It garnered one more Grammy nomination.

In 1994 Cotton had throat surgery followed by radiation treatments. Not long afterward he was back on the road with his James Cotton Trio, playing the music of his roots. That same year he moved back to the Memphis area. Cotton’s life has come full circle, he has returned to the source of the fountain on two levels…his star still shines.

There is a photograph of a man wearing overalls sitting on an old porch intently playing a harmonica. If you study the photograph you can feel the depth of the man’s soul. The man is James Cotton. The porch is part of the commissary store on the plantation where he was born in Tunica, Mississippi. The depth of the man’s soul can be heard on “Deep In The Blues” on Verve Records. Grammy Award – Best Traditional Blues Album -1996

During the latter part of the last decade The James Cotton Trio – with Cotton on harmonica, David Maxwell on piano, Rico McFarland on guitar, and alternate singers, Mojo Buford and Darrell Nulisch – toured the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, and South America.The music was not as loud as it used to be. “We like to play what people can listen to and enjoy,” Cotton says.

When one looks at Cotton’s audience in his theatre, university, and festival venues, it consists of three generations – the youngest is usually holding a harp. My guess is Cotton finds that a beautiful sight.

Cotton has made three CDs on the Telarc label. “Fire Down Under The Hill” was released in March 2000. Recorded at the end of 2001 and released in May of 2002 “The 35th Anniversary Jam of The James Cotton Blues Band” received a Grammy nomination. Many of Cotton’s friends are singing and playing with him honoring the 35 years since Cotton left Muddy’s band to front his own band. His latest CD, “Baby, Don’t You Tear My Clothes,” has given Cotton the chance to branch out and play not only blues, but also, country and bluegrass – a great surprise to all! He is joined by a premier list of guests and friends. It was released in May 2004.

Cotton has always been known for having one of the best bands in the business. The members are: Darrell Nulisch, vocals; Mike Williams, guitar; Noel Neal, bass; and Jerry Porter, drums. Cotton’s eyes light up when he talks about his band, “My audience always tells me how I’m doing. If I look out there and don’t like what I see, I work harder.” His audiences are still on their feet, they enjoy themselves as much as he does, and there are still standing ovations night after night. You will have a memorable evening with an international treasure and a true Living Legend of the Blues.

James Cotton, a pioneering harmonica player who worked with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and helped establish his instrument as an integral part of modern blues, died on Thursday in Austin, Tex. He was 81.

Marc Lipkin, the director of publicity at Alligator Records, Mr. Cotton’s label, said the cause was pneumonia.

Many of Mr. Cotton’s lasting early contributions came during his first tenure with Waters, in Chicago, where from 1954 to 1966 he played in a band that included the guitarist Jimmy Rogers and the pianist Otis Spann.

Often heard in close call and response with Waters’s deep, declamatory vocals, Mr. Cotton’s squalling harmonica animated dozens of recordings Waters made for the influential Chess label, including classics like “Got My Mojo Working” and “Rock Me.”

Curiously enough, though Mr. Cotton was hired in 1954, he did not begin to appear on Waters’s recordings until late 1956. Before that, Waters usually recruited Little Walter Jacobs, Mr. Cotton’s predecessor in his band, to work with him in the studio.

“I was there for a couple of years before I got to be on the albums,” Mr. Cotton explained in a 2001 interview for the PBS documentary “American Roots Music.” “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.”

Mr. Cotton embarked on a solo career in 1966 when he formed the James Cotton Blues Band. He and his group spent much of the next decade making records of their own and sharing bills with popular rock acts like Janis Joplin and Cream.

Mr. Cotton’s muscular, heavily amplified harmonica — he typically played with a microphone cupped tightly to his instrument — influenced the work of several major blues-rock groups of the era, among them the Allman Brothers, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag.

Mr. Cotton reunited with Waters on the 1977 album “Hard Again,” which included a raucous remake of Waters’s 1950s classic “Mannish Boy.” Produced by the guitarist Johnny Winter, the album won a Grammy Award for best ethnic or traditional recording and helped Chicago-style blues gain a wider audience.

Before his first stint with Waters, Mr. Cotton was one of two harmonica players, along with Little Junior Parker, in the band of Howlin’ Wolf, appearing on some of the recordings he made with Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis in the early 1950s.

In 1954, Mr. Cotton also made four recordings under his own name for Sun. “Cotton Crop Blues,” an original that begins with the clarion pledge “I ain’t gonna raise no more cotton,” was the most enduring of these, featuring Mr. Cotton’s rasping vocals and the slashing, distorted guitar of Pat Hare.

James Henry Cotton was born on July 1, 1935, in Tunica, Miss., the youngest of eight brothers and sisters. His parents, Hattie and Mose, were sharecroppers who worked on a cotton plantation. His father was also the preacher at the local Baptist church.

Mr. Cotton was inspired to take up the harmonica by his mother, who liked to use the instrument to mimic the squawking of chickens and the whistles of freight trains. Before long he was playing to entertain the other sharecroppers while hauling water to them in the fields; by age 7 he was performing for small change on the streets of nearby towns in the Mississippi Delta.

Both of Mr. Cotton’s parents had died by the time he was 9 and an uncle took him to meet the harmonica master Sonny Boy Williamson, a.k.a. Rice Miller, after young James heard his radio show, “King Biscuit Time,” on the Arkansas station KFFA. Williamson immediately took a liking to the boy, embracing him as a member of both his family and his touring group.

Though Mr. Cotton was probably most celebrated for his work in the employ of others, his career as a bandleader, and as a dynamic showman known to do back flips onstage, proved to have greater longevity, spanning nearly half a century.

He began to slow down only in the mid-’90s, when doctors found polyps on his vocal cords. The condition forced him to give up singing, though not the harmonica, which he continued to play, in concert and on record, into his 70s.

Mr. Cotton, whose prowess on the harmonica earned him the nickname Superharp (the term “harp” is common parlance for the harmonica), released some two dozen albums, with small and larger ensembles, for a variety of labels, including Alligator, Vanguard and Telarc. His “Deep in the Blues” (Verve) won a Grammy for best traditional blues album in 1997. His most recent album, “Cotton Mouth Man,” was released in 2013 and nominated for a Grammy.

Mr. Cotton also won several W. C. Handy International Blues Awards (since 2006 known as the Blues Music Awards) long considered among the highest accolades for musicians working in that idiom. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.

Mr. Cotton is survived by his wife and manager, Jacklyn Hairston Cotton, with whom he moved from Memphis to Austin in 2010. His other survivors include two daughters, Teresa Hampton and Marshall Ann Cotton; a son, James Patrick Cotton; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mr. Cotton worked with an array of blues and rock luminaries during his seven decades in the music business, but whenever he reflected on his experiences in interviews he cited his childhood apprenticeship with Williamson as the most formative.

“I wanted to be just like Sonny Boy,” he recalled in the PBS documentary. “I watched every move he made, every word he said.”

“If he played it tonight,” Mr. Cotton added, “I played it tomorrow.”

—Washington Post
“Cotton is a key link on the chain of great blues harmonica players – Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Junior Wells. Sometimes he out-rocks the Rolling Stones.”

– Chicago Tribune
“Since 1966 James Cotton has been carrying the Chicago sound to the world. On Giant, he pours 75 years of living into that harmonica and out comes devastating and powerful blasts of notes undiminished by age.”

“Legendary master of the blues harmonica. Wowed, you will be.”

– Time Out NY
“Sweat and grit …Cotton can blow down doors with Chicago style blues.”

– Austin Chronicle
“Cotton can blow like hell…dazzling.”

– Chicago Sun-Times
“A living musical legend, Cotton is at the top of his game. Giant is the work of a master…Essential, fiery and propulsive. Cotton brings the heat with his true mastery of the harmonica. Magnificent, poignant and beautiful.”

– Blurt
“Distinctive wail…fat-toned style. Sheer propulsive power…Cotton can drive a song with his harp, squeezing out a flurry of notes. His true genius is his ability to select the perfect note. Cotton is a virtuoso of the blues. Giant is one of the best albums of the year.”

– Blues Revue
“Cotton’s solos are forceful, squarely stabbing the notes and chords. His phrases are full of tonal variety, summoning a steamship, a train whistle, a saxophone, a hurricane and an octave-jumping bird. Cotton’s not through creating by a long shot.”

– DownBeat
“Cotton’s long, fabled career is unrivaled in terms of its historic import….a name that is mentioned alongside some of the very best performers ever to play the instrument. Cotton’s playing has cemented his place in the top tier of blues harmonica masters: that muscular tone, those brawny wails, the stinging high note bends. …sends a shiver down the spine. Fiery, inimitable, ferocious attack, dominance and power. The well of talent he draws from is as deep as the blues he plays.”

– Living Blues
“The finest blues harmonica player alive.”

The James Cotton Blues Band 
The James Cotton Blues Band

01. Good Time Charlie
02. Turn On Your Lovelight
03. Something On Your Mind
04. Don't Start Me Talkin'
05. Jelly, Jelly
06. Off The Wall
07. Feelin' Good
08. Sweet Sixteen
09. Knock On Wood
10. Oh Why
11. Blues In My Sleep

The James Cotton Blues Band
Pure Cotton

01. Soul Survivor
02. I Remember
03. Worried Life Blues
04. Fallin' Rain
05. Heart Attack
06. Lovin' Cup
07. She's Murder
08. Somethin' You Got
09. Who's Afraid Of Little Red Riding Hood?
10. The Creeper
11. Down At Your Buryin'

James Cotton Blues Band 
Cotton In Your Ears

01. Back To St. Louis
02. Motorized Blues
03. The Mule
04. With You On My Mind
05. I Can't Live Without You
06. (Please) Tell Me Partner
07. Duke Patrol
08. Take Me By The Hand 4:06
09. The Coach's Better Days
10. Take Your Hands Off Her

James Cotton
Cut You Loose!

01. River's Invitation
02. Honest I Do
03. Got To Get You Off My Mind
04. Coast Blues
05. Next Time You See Me
06. Cut You Loose
07. Ain't Nobody's Business
08. Set A Date
09. Slippin' And Slidin'
10. Negative Ten-Four

James Cotton 
Taking Care Of Business

01. The Sky Is Falling
02. Long Distance Operator
03. I'm A Free Man
04. Can't Live Without Love
05. Kiddy Boy
06. She Moves Me
07. Tonight I Wanna Love Me A Stranger
08. Nose Open
09. Goodbye My Lady
10. Georgia Swing

The James Cotton Band 
100% Cotton

01. Boogie Thing
02. One More Mile
03. All Walks Of Life
04. Creeper Creeps Again
05. Rockett 88
06. How Long Can A Fool Go Wrong
07. I Don't Know
08. Burner
09. Fatuation
10. Fever

The James Cotton Band
High Energy

01. Hot 'n Cold
02. Chicken Heads
03. I Got A Feelin'
04. Hard Time Blues
05. Weather Report (The Weather Man Said)
06. Keep Cooking Mama
07. Fannie Mae
08. Caldonia
09. Rock'n Roll Music (Ain't Nothing New)
10. James' Theme

The James Cotton Band 
Live & On The Move

01. Cotton Boogie
02. One More Mile
03. All Walks Of Life
04. Flip Flop & Fly
05. Rockett 88
06. Goodbye My Lady
07. I Don't Know
08. Caldonia
09. Boogie Thing
10. Good Morning Little School Girl
11. Oh Baby You Don't Have To Go
12. Fannie Mae
13. Hot 'N' Cold
14. Teeny Weeny Bit
15. Blow Wind Blow
16. How Long Can A Fool Go Wrong

James Cotton
My Foundation 

01. Take me Back Baby
02. Houngry Country
03. Dunn Got Over It
04. Dust my Broom
05. Take Out Some Insurance
06. Killing Floor
07. Don't You Know I Love You
08. Clouds of my Heart
09. My Babe

The James Cotton Band
Red Hot 'n' Blues

01. Caldonia
02. Fannie Mae
03. I Don't Know
04. Keep Cooking Mama
05. Rocket 88
06. Chicken heads
07. Hot 'n cold
08. Mojo
09. Boogie Thing

James Cotton
Two Sides Of The Blues

01. Good Time Charlie
02. There's Something On Your Mind
03. Turn On Your Love Life
04. Jelly Jelly
05. South Side Boogie
06. So Glad You're Mine
07. Diggin' My Potatoes
08. V-8 Ford Blues
09. Polly Put The Kettle On

The James Cotton Blues Band
Dealing With The Devil

01. Off The Wall
02. Don't Stat Me To Talkin'
03. Dealing With The Devil
04. The Creeper
05. You Know It Ain't Right
06. Feelin' Good
07. Knock On Wood
08. Sweet Sixteen
09. I Need You So Bad
10. Fore Day Blues

James Cotton
High Compression

01. Diggin' My Potatoes
02. Ying Yang
03. 23 Hours Too Long
04. No More Doggin'
05. No Cuttin' Loose
06. Ain't Doin' Too Bad
07. Sunny Road
08. Superharp
09. Easy Loving
10. High Compression

James Cotton
Midnight Creeper - The Complete 1967 Live Montreal James Cotton Sessions

101. Intro
102. Honky Tonk
103. Woke Up This Morning
104. Black Night
106. Feelin' Good
106. Mean Old Worl
107. Mother In Law Blues
108. Every Day I Have The Blues
109. Tramp
110. Nine Below Zero
111. That's Alright
112. Rock Me Baby
113. Rocket 88
114. I Got You
115. There's Something On My Mind
116. Money Honey
117. I Don't Know
118. Good Time Charlie
119. It Ain't Right
120. Knock On Wood

201. It Was A Very Good Year
202. Mystery Train
203. She's My Baby
204. One More Mile
205. How Sweet It Is
206. I Can't Quit You Baby
207. Sweet Sixteen
208. Midnight Creeper
209. Hoochie Coochie Man
210. Stormy Monday
211. Work Song
212. Dealing With The Devil
213. Turn On Your Lovelight / Please, Please, Please

Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter & James Cotton 
Breakin' It UP, Breakin' It Down

01. Black Cat Bone/Dust My Broom
02. Can't Be Satisfied
03. Caledonia
04. Dealin' With The Devil
05. Rocket 88
06. I Done Got Over It
07. How Long Can A Fool Go Wrong
08. Mama Talk To Your Daughter
09. Love Her With A Feeling
10. Trouble No More
11. Got My Mojo Workin'