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James Cotton (1935.07.01/Tunica, MS - ) is an American blues harmonica player, singer, and songwriter who is the bandleader for the James Cotton Blues Band. He was born on July 1, 1935, in Tunica, Mississippi. 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 was listening to King Biscuit Time, a 15-minute radio show, began broadcasting live on KFFA, a station just across the Mississippi River in Helena, Arkansas, starring harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) when his love affair with the harp started. Cotton played for tips on Beale Street in Memphis. He also was a shoeshine.
By the age of 9 both of his parents had died. Cotton was taken to Sonny Boy Williamson by his uncle and when they met in West Helena, Arkansas the young fellow wasted no time – he began playing Sonny Boy's theme song on his treasured harp. "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 and Arkansas. Williamson had a lot of faith in Cotton, and his faith would ultimately be proved sound. While he played a few instruments, Cotton was famous for his great work on the harmonica. 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. "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."
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 so he went to the show. Cotton got along well with Howlin' Wolf from the moment they met and they began to play together, with Cotton doing most of the driving down Highway 61.
At the 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, gave Cotton a 15-minute radio show in 1952.
Cotton had gigs every weekend but to help support himself 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. When the band took a break, a strange man approached and extended a handshake to Cotton saying, "Hello, I'm Muddy Waters." "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. Cotton remained Muddy's harp player for 12 years.
Cotton began to work with the Muddy Waters Band in 1955. He performed songs such as "I Got My Mojo Working" and "She's Nineteen Years Old". Muddy would often compare young Cotton to Little Walter. In 1965 he formed the Jimmy Cotton Blues Quartet with Otis Spann on piano to record between gigs with Waters band. Their performances were captured by producer Samuel Charters on volume two of the classic Vanguard recording Chicago/The Blues/Today!. "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.
After leaving Muddy's band in 1966, Cotton toured with Janis Joplin while pursuing a solo career. Alone, Cotton wrote many classic songs. Some of the most famous include "Cotton Crop Blues", "Rocket 88" (the Wikipedia entry for this song credits it to Ike Turner, not Cotton), and "Hold Me In Your Arms".
He formed the James Cotton Blues Band in 1967, Cotton's first year as a bandleader. They performed all of Cotton's classics and more. Two albums "Seems Like Yesterday" and " Late Night Blues" were recorded live in Montreal that year but they stayed unreleased until 1998 on the Justin Time label. Cotton was on his way to becoming a legend.
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. During the late 60's 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.
In the 1970s, Cotton recorded many albums with Buddah Records. Cotton played harmonica on Muddy Water's Grammy Award winning 1977 comeback album Hard Again, produced by Johnny Winter. The James Cotton Blues Band would soon become The James Cotton Trio, and by 1987, he was up for his second Grammy Nomination. The first one was for his 1984 release, Live From Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself!. His second for Take Me Back.
Cotton is truly a living blues legend, with a career spanning 65 years. Some of his many accomplishments include a Grammy in 1996 (and nominated for 3 other’s); 7 WC Handy Awards/Blues Music Awards; induction into the Smithsonian Institution and the Blues Hall of Fame; The Blues Foundation’s Howlin’ Wolf Award; Honorary and Lifetime member of the Sonny Boy Blues Society; and the Premier Harmonica Player Awards for 1999 and 2000 awarded by the Memphis Chapter of the National Academy of Record Arts and Sciences.
“Superharp”, as he has been known, has recorded more than 20 of his own albums/cd’s in addition to countless others in which he has appeared. A throat problem left Cotton with an extremely raspy voice in recent years, but he continues to tour infrequently.
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