James Cotton breathes life into harmonica

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times on May 31, 1987.

“There’s a lot of difference between 1954 and 1987. Everything’s changed,” admitted James Cotton, the harmonica powerhouse who was born in Mississippi and served his blues apprenticeship in West Memphis, before joining Muddy Waters in Chicago in 1954. “There’s no more Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf around.”

A lot of folks figured that when the blues giants of Wolf’s and Muddy’s generation died, the blues would die along with them. With the

advent of the fourth annual Chicago Blues Festival, the popular free fest in Grant Park that begins next Friday, it would seem that the music is surviving just fine.


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“This is the way I see it,” said Cotton. “When Mr. Ford died, they didn’t quit making Fords, did they? The blues is gonna live as long as there’s gonna be romance, falling in love, falling out of love” — and a bunch more things that can’t be printed in a family newspaper, but which suggest that the appeal of the blues is as natural as a lot of other natural urges.

Cotton was drawn to the blues when it was still in its Model T stages, and he’s helped it develop into the high-octane, city-sharp

roadmaster that it has since become. He played country blues in Mississippi and has played rock ‘n’ roll blues at the Fillmores. He

learned from Sonny Boy Williamson, and toured with Janis Joplin.

Whatever the original Henry Ford might have thought of Cotton’s current music, Mustang Sally could dance to it all night long. As a boy in Tunica, Miss., 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, Ark., 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.

The music represented a whole new world for young James, a world that he wanted to make his own. At the age of 9, he left home to find

Sonny Boy, to live with him, to learn whatever he could from him.

Williamson (known to blues fanatics as Sonny Boy II; his real name was Rice Miller) raised Cotton as his own son for the next six years.

“I went home when I was 15, and my mother and father didn’t even remember me,” said Cotton. “I was the black sheep of the family.”

Cotton didn’t stay home in Mississippi for long. There was a burgeoning blues scene in Memphis, and many of the musicians who had played country blues for fun and pocket change down South were drawn to the prospects of a career in the big city. Born in the cradle of the blues, Cotton moved to where the blues was becoming big business.

Among the Memphis labels capitalizing on the city’s blues artistry was Sun Records, a few years before the label’s Sam Phillips would discover a white guy who could sing black, Elvis Presley. Moving to West Memphis, Cotton kept learning from Sonny Boy, but he also

started working with a rising star of the blues named Chester Burnett, who billed himself as Howlin’ Wolf.

Wolf cut a series of classic sides for Sun in the early ’50s, before moving to Chicago in 1952. Attempting to replace the Wolf, Sam

Phillips turned to the young harmonica sideman, and recorded “Cotton Crop Blues” with Cotton and guitarist Pat Hare.

In the ’50s, the blues migration from Memphis to Chicago was as common as the earlier move from Mississippi to Memphis had been. The city had long enjoyed (or survived) a reputation as a “wide open town,” and the popularity of guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, another former Mississippian, was turning Chicago’s South Side into a blues mecca. The Chicago sound retained much of the rawness and spontaneity of the Southern style, but its big-beat amplification resulted in a tougher, louder brand of blues.

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.

`I was playing like Sonny Boy, because he was the guy that taught me,” said Cotton. “Little Walter changed the times on the harmonica, just like the Beatles changed the times. Walter came up with all the licks. Some of us picked up on them; some of us didn’t. When I was

playing with Muddy Waters, I had to play Walter’s solos, lick for lick, note for note, night after night. That was very difficult for me to do, because two people don’t play the same thing.”

Somehow, Cotton managed well enough in replacing the most influential harmonica player in the most powerful band the blues had known.

Inevitably, Little Walter’s solo success with hits such as “Juke” and “My Babe” made him less available for Muddy’s studio sessions as

well. When the chance came for Cotton to record “Walking Thru the Park” with Muddy, he was expected to play whatever Little Walter would have played.

“We was at the studio on Michigan, Chess and Checker, and Little Walter got drunk one day, after he became a star, so he didn’t show

up,” remembered Cotton.

Leonard Chess took the band into a rehearsal room, and Cotton began blowing an introduction to “Walking Thru the Park” that he

thought would give the arrangement a little twist. Muddy though it sounded like a cha-cha, and he knew it didn’t sound like anything that

Little Walter would play.

“I got fired right there,” said Cotton with a laugh. “Muddy said, `I don’t play cha-cha. I play blues.’ It was just the introduction. I was going to bring it back to the blues, but he hadn’t hear anything like that.

“Leonard Chess said, `Hey, wait a minute, Mud. Let him play it.’ When he saw it was cooking, he finally realized that he had another

harp player.”

Having established himself as a stylist in his own right, Cotton accompanied Muddy on an extended string of hits, including the classic

“Got My Mojo Working.” The popularity of such “race records” was still strongest within the black community, but the blues was starting to receive some exposure among white listeners as well.

Muddy’s 1958 tour of England would inspire the formation of bands such as the Rolling Stones (who took their name from one of his songs), the Yardbirds and the Animals. A triumphant appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, where Cotton’s harmonica virtuosity on “Mojo Working” left listeners amazed, introduced the music to a whole new audience. Back home in Chicago, the band was starting to play to some unfamiliar faces as well.

“We were playing at a club called Smitty’s Corner on 35th and Indiana, five nights a week,” said Cotton. “Back then, there weren’t

no whites in the club. These guys started coming, and we didn’t know who they was. Paul Butterfield was the harmonica player, Nick Gravenites was the singer, Elvis Bishop was a guitar player, and Michael Bloomfield I think was one of the best guitarists who ever


This was, of course, the nucleus of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Gravenites never recorded with the band, but he did write “Born in Chicago” and “East West” for Butterfield, and later sang for Bloomfield’s Electric Flag. He has returned to Chicago to make a guest

appearance with Cotton’s band Friday night at the Blues Festival.

“I didn’t know what the hell they was doing in there,” remembered Cotton of the young white blues fanatics, “but after we got to know one another, we became friends. Butterfield and Bloomfield started playing at a place called Big John’s on Wells St. They being my friends, I used to go see them, stop by the bandstand. People got to hear me play whatever I wanted to play. Finally, Muddy Waters came up, and we got hired there for two weeks, and ended up staying nine weeks.”

As the rock mainstream began opening itself to the blues – which, after all, had helped spawn rock ‘n’ roll in the first place – Cotton

decided that the time had come to strike out on his own. He had been with Muddy for 12 years, from his late teens until his early 30s. As much respect he had for the master, Cotton was a younger man, with a more flexible approach to music.

“I wanted to play something else,” he said, “I respected Muddy so much that I wasn’t going to play whatever I wanted to play with him; I

was going to play his music. I wanted to play things with a beat, things that were happening now. Muddy just wanted straightaway blues,

God bless him. I figured it was all blues, just a different tempo.”

As Cotton attempted to reach a wider, younger audience with his new music, there were doors to the music industry that opened far more

easily for whites than blacks.

Fortunately for Cotton, the young white guys who had learned much of their blues from him didn’t forget to show their gratitude. The Butterfield Band had signed with Albert Grossman, the high-powered, high-profile manager who also handled Bob Dylan. At the suggestion of Butterfield and Bloomfield, Grossman signed a seven-year deal with Cotton, and negotiated a major-label contract for the new bandleader with Capitol Records.

The first album from the Cotton band in 1966 was a peculiar hybrid, produced by Todd Rundgren and Mark “Moogy” Klingman, fellow

clients of Grossman’s, and featuring guest appearances from Bloomfield and Johnny Winter. Subsequent recordings relied heavily on Cotton’s “Superharp” reputation, with material that was little more than a peg for his revved-up virtuosity.

Now that major labels have long lost their interest in blues, Cotton is making some of the most exciting recordings of his career for

Chicago’s Alligator Records. His “High Compression” debut for the label in 1984 featured a few cuts with a group of Chicago all-stars,

including pianist Pinetop Perkins and guitarist Magic Slim. Last year’s Grammy-nominated “Live From Chicago – Mr. Superharp Himself!” captured Cotton and his horn-laden big band at Biddy Mulligan’s.

This year’s festival is scheduled to begin with a Friday tribute to Howlin’ Wolf, and to end on Sunday as a cultural exchange with the Memphis blues community. Cotton won’t be participating in either of those programs, although he could be, for Wolf and Memphis figure prominently among his credits. Instead, as a celebration of his range and longevity, Cotton will be featured within two very different

contexts for his Friday performances.

At the Petrillo Music Shell that evening, he will bring the opening night to its climax with his big band, with a guest appearance by Nick Gravenites. With younger musicians behind him, Cotton will deliver his foot-stomping, party-time blues of the ’80s.

“They keep me on my toes,” said Cotton of his band.

As exciting as the evening’s set might prove, Cotton’s earlier performance of the day should be one of the can’t-miss musical experiences of this year’s fest. At 2 p.m. on the fest’s “Front Porch,” Cotton will team with pianist Pinetop Perkins and guitarist Jimmy Rogers for a special set of classic blues. Both Rogers and Perkins are Muddy Waters alumni as well, but Cotton and Perkins go back further, to the era when both worked with Sonny Boy Williamson.

“Some of the younger musicians, they just don’t know what I know about the blues,” Cotton continued. “To play with people like Jimmy Rogers and Pinetop Perkins is a blessing. You never forget your roots, where you started. When we do play together, we go right back home.”

Don McCleese is a former pop music critic for the Sun-Times.

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