Acclaimed blues harmonica player James Cotton died on March 16, 2017. He was a legendary musician who had performed with some of blues’ greatest musicians along with rock stars.
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 together with their mother, Hattie, and their father, Mose. On Sundays, Mose was the preacher in the area’s Baptist church.
Cotton’s earliest memories included his mother playing chicken and train sounds on her harmonica and for a few years he thought those were the only two sounds the small instrument made. His Christmas present one year was a harmonica; it cost 15 cents, and it wasn’t long before he mastered the sounds of the chicken and the train.
King Biscuit Time, a 15-minute radio show, began broadcasting live on KFFA, a radio 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 listened closely to the old radio speaker. He recognized the harmonica sound and discovered something – the harmonica did more! Realizing this, a profound change came over him, and since that moment, Cotton and his harmonica became inseparable. Soon after, 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 unbearably hot and James 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 played his harmonica. His music became a source of joy for his first audience.
By his ninth year, both of his parents had died, and Cotton was taken to Sonny Boy Williamson by his uncle. When they met, the young kid wasted no time – he began playing Sonny Boy’s theme song on his treasured harmonica. Cotton remembered that first meeting well and said, “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 harmonica 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 remembered.
James Cotton embarked on a long musical career. He joined Muddy Waters’ band, formed his own blues outfit called James Cotton Blues Band in the late 1960s and collaborated with rock artists such as Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.
“James Cotton’s talent as a blues harmonica player was unmatched. While the Mississippi native was best known for his collaborations with Muddy Waters, he was also an accomplished singer-songwriter and fronted his own group called the James Cotton Blues Band. A 10-time GRAMMY nominee, he earned the Best Traditional Blues Album GRAMMY for 1996 for his album Deep in the Blues. He was later inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006. Our deepest condolences go out to James’ family, friends, and creative collaborators,” said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy.