James Cotton:
Mr. Superharp!

Written by WL Woodward

We lost James Cotton on Thursday, March 16, 81 years old.  The last breath of a monster harp player with the power of an airplane engine was taken by pneumonia.  Weird.

Cotton met Sonny Boy Williamson II, called by some the Father of the Modern Blues Harp, when Cotton was a boy (that shit just ain’t fair).  Cotton used to claim Williamson took him in but that story later turned out to be false.  But James did play with Sonny Boy’s band enough that he learned the style and the percussive nature of Williamson’s playing.  Sonny Boy left the business for a minute for an ex-wife when Cotton was a teenager and left the keys to the band in the young lad’s hands, but Cotton was too young and Williamson had taught him too much about girls and liquor for him to control a grown up band.  But here’s a little about what Sonny Boy II taught Cotton.


In the early 50’s, Cotton being maybe 17 years old played with Howlin Wolf, and in 1955 at 20 years of age Muddy Waters came looking for him and hired him on with his band.  This was amazing enough given his age, but also because Muddy already had Little Walter in his band, who along with Sonny Boy is often called the Father of the Modern Blues Harp and in my opinion the granddad of power harp.  Cotton definitely learned well, showing Little Walter’s power style in his own.  Here’s a 50’s recording by Little W that showcases what Cotton was listening to as a very young man.


Shiver me timbers.

Muddy Waters was a shit heel as a person but he was certainly a blues god and man he could put a band together.  Cotton and Walter shared harp duties (loved to have seen THAT band live) until Walter left in 1957 to pursue a solo career and Cotton took the lead.  To keep from being called the Father of the Modern Blues Harp, James Cotton became Mr. Superharp.

Harp players and true blues enthusiasts know Sonny Boy and Little Walter but Cotton became the harp man in my generation because the dude played with EVERYBODY, so no matter what you were listening to the dude kept popping up.  He toured with some of the best blues and rock bands as either a member or with his band opening.  Besides all the blues players he backed or fronted like Muddy, Howlin, Sonny Boy, Hubert Sumlin, Billy Boy Arnold, B.B. King, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, Paul Butterfield, Johnny Winter and Taj Mahal; he played with Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomfield, Joe Bonamassa, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Freddie King, Steve Miller, Keith Richards, Todd Rundgren, Santana, and Johnny Winter.  (Yeah, I put Johnny in twice.  More on Himself another day).  Cotton was one workin blues man.

Of course it helped that he was around for so damn long.  Here’s a recording from 2013.  You can hear Little Walter in there, but Cotton had his own style.  His bending and runs, and warbles are unmistakable Cotton Mouth.  77 years old and the dude could still breathe.

Yeah.  And that’s Joe Bonamassa on the guitar.  Tasty.  Another corn hole but a full on sweet picker.

This is an old story now but we started listening to bluesmen like Muddy, B.B. and Cotton when Eric Clapton, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones told us to.  I remember very well being disappointed at first, thinking the music was repetitive and not as rocking as the guys I was listening to.  I have no excuse.  Early dementia.  But I came around.

See the boys from across the pond discovered the blues and it took them to rock.  Those encounters, those early Sun and Chess records, were found by teens that were used to skiffle, a particularly tidy, uncluttered music and the raw energy of what Muddy Waters and B.B. King were up to, blew up their world.  We discovered rock and it blew up our world but sometimes got lost tracking it back.  Not all of us.  I had friends who got it and kept me at it.  But I was really pointed to it later by my own son.  Before he was a teen I was pushing Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and he was a staunch Metallica fan so most of the fencing was about that dynamic.  Then one day, when he was maybe 12, he watched a documentary on Stevie Ray Vaughn and I heard the top of his head peeling off from upstairs.  He came bounding into the kitchen.  This also happened a year earlier when he heard me listening to Duke Ellington.

“Why the heck didn’t you tell me about THIS stuff!”  Uh, I was busy.  Oh yeah, Stevie Ray.  He died the year you were born and he was a beast.  The kid’s first inkling that maybe Pops ain’t all that.  Dean followed back down the path from rock to blues with a passion, dredging up the Kings, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Little Walter, etc.   Dean has a more astute and grasping musical mind than mine so he got it.  And he dragged me into the pool.  Thanks buddy.

In the 70’s we used to see the James Cotton Blues Band play the Shaboo Inn in CT.  The Shaboo was a great venue, large enough for bands like Cotton, NRBQ (!!!) and Roomful of Blues but intimate enough for John Hartford and Roy Buchanan (whom I saw play by himself in a chair with a hollow body guitar and a small Fender tube amp).   They were all great but Cotton, man he raised the roof in that old barn.   Here’s a vid of him at the Shaboo from sometime in the 70’s, with Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy.  Cotton and one tenor sax could sound like a whole horn section.  Check out how close the audience is.  Imagine sitting that close to this guy.


In a 2013 Rolling Stone interview he was asked why he never retired and he answered “You work so hard to get it that once you get it, you don’t want to let it go, because at that point, it’s yours.  You paid the price for it, and it’s yours.”

And then you gave it to us.  Thanks, and rest in peace.  Say hi to the boys for us.  Gotsta be some crazy jam sessions going on up there.

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