Alligator Records is reporting that world-renowned blues harmonica master James Cotton died Thursday. He was 81.
The legendary label cited pneumonia as the cause of death. Mr. Cotton died at St. David’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas.
According to the story:
“His overwhelmingly powerful harmonica playing was one of the iconic sounds of the blues. He toured worldwide for over 60 years. James Henry Cotton, known as “Mr. Superharp,” recorded nearly 30 solo albums, winning one Grammy Award, six Living Blues Awards and 10 Blues Music Awards. He was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2006. The New York Daily News called him, “The greatest blues harmonica player of all time.” NPR Weekend Edition said, “Conjure up a list of all-time great blues harmonica players, and high up on it you’ll see the name James Cotton.”
Cotton signed with Alligator Records in 1984, releasing two solo albums and the famed “Harp Attack!” with Junior Wells, Carey Bell and Billy Branch. He won a Grammy Award in 1996 for his Verve album, “Deep In The Blues” and recorded four albums for Telarc Records before returning to Alligator in 2010. His most recent recording was 2013’s Grammy-nominated “Cotton Mouth Man.
In June 2010, Cotton was honored by New York’s Lincoln Center, where Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and others paid tribute to him in an all-star concert. The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal honored Cotton with their 2015 B.B. King Award for his seven decades of contributions to the blues.”
In a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone, Cotton talked about retirement. “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,” he said. “You paid the price for it, and it’s yours. You didn’t give it up when you didn’t have a place to sleep tonight. It’s because you want to be there and you enjoy yourself.”
Cotton’s recording career began in the 1950s on the Sun Records label, beginning with the singles “Straighten Up Baby” and “Cotton Crop Blues.” In 1966, he formed The James Cotton Blues Band, but his seven-decade career included working with some of the blues greatest artists, including Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Keith Richards, B.B. King, Santana, Joe Bonamassa, Junior Wells and Billy Branch, among others.
As a boy in Tunica, Mississippi, Cotton heard his mother make the harmonica sound like a freight train or a hen squawk, and he discovered that he could play practically anything he heard on the instrument.
Across the river in West Helena, Arkansas, Sonny Boy Williamson had a radio show, “Sonny Boy’s Corn Meal and King Biscuits Show,” where he played the blues on his harmonica every day.
In 1954, Muddy Waters recruited the 18-year-old Cotton to come North with him. Muddy’s longtime harp player, “Little Walter” Jacobs, was becoming a recording star in his own right, and Muddy needed a touring musician who could play like Little Walter. As much as Cotton had already learned about the blues harp, he had to start learning all over again.
Cotton also played the Chicago Blues Festival over the years and was slated to play this year’s fest, the first in Millennium Park, on June 9.
Cotton is survived by his wife, Jacklyn Hairston Cotton; daughters Teresa Hampton of Seattle, Washington; Marshall Ann Cotton, of downstate Peoria; and son James Patrick Cotton of Chicag, as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Contributing: Sam Charles