Featured Interview – James “Superharp” Cotton 2013

James Cotton

July 1, 1935 – March 16, 2017

From August 1, 2013 Issue
If you were going to share the stage with heavyweights like Led
Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Santana and Chicago back in their hey-day,
you had better be ready to deliver, or you were going to be destroyed.

While it may not seem like a level playing field, taking on an army of
Les Pauls and a mountain of Marshalls with just a solitary harmonica, as
he’s proven time after time during the course of his 77 years on Mother
Earth, James ‘Superharp’ Cotton is more than capable of delivering,
regardless of the circumstances, or the odds, surrounding him.

Not only did the remarkable Cotton go toe-to-toe with a who’s-who of
Rock-N-Roll Hall of Famers at the fabled Fillmore West (and East) back
in the late 1960s, long before that, the legendary harmonica player was
also band-mates with Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters
– all before he was even 20 years old! That right there is more than
enough to cement a bluesman’s legacy. Throw in the fact that Paul
Butterfield was Cotton’s apprentice for a couple of years and that’s
just icing on the cake.

Cotton was personally responsible for showing a whole legion of
college-aged music lovers in the San Francisco Bay Area where groups
like Zeppelin, The Yardbirds and Cream got their inspiration from,
thanks to the Bill Graham-produced shows at the old Fillmore West. You
may have been going to dig on the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Big Brother
and the Holding Company or the Steve Miller Band, but sandwiched in the
middle of those bands, you were likely to find the James Cotton Blues
Band.

“I had a good time playing with guys like Steve Miller, who had Boz
Scaggs in his band at the time, and all those groups like that back at
the Fillmore,” Cotton said. “Oh man, it was something else; standing
ovations and just a lot of love for the blues. It (the blues) was
something that a lot of the younger people had never really heard before
– not the way that guys like Muddy and The Wolf played ‘em. But they
thought it was good music. They really enjoyed it and I enjoyed playing
for them. I just like seeing people have a good time. That makes me want
to really play hard for them.”

That initial exposure of the blues that Cotton helped to provide back
then helped turn a lot of the ‘hippie age’ into blues lovers for the
rest of their lives.

“I didn’t think about that back then … I just played what I knew how to
play,” he said. “But I’m happy that maybe they started liking the blues
because of something that I played for them. That makes me really
happy.”

Though a bout with throat cancer and the ensuing loss of a vocal cord
back in the mid-90s has left Cotton unable to do much singing, the
Grammy Award winner and Blues Hall of Famer has steadfastly refused to
allow that malady stop him from blowing the harp with as much power and
gusto as he ever has.

“I was a harmonica player before I was a singer. I didn’t really become
a singer until I started fronting a band,” he said. “So, that (his
health) has kind of made me be able to concentrate on playing the
harmonica again. It kind of put me back on track.”

Cotton’s health issues have also not put the brakes on his recording
career, either. He just requires a little more help in the studio these
days. And when you’ve got friends like Gregg Allman, Keb Mo, Warren
Haynes, Delbert McClinton, Darrell Nulisch, Joe Bonamassa and Ruthie
Foster to call on, well, you’ve got it made.

That all-star cast shows up on Cotton’s newest CD, the
appropriately-titled Cotton Mouth Man (Alligator Records).

“Oh, man – I was really thrilled to be involved on this project!”  – Gregg Allman

“Oh, man … they made me really happy. It was so beautiful that they
helped me do my new album. It made me feel really good … I really don’t
have words for how it made me feel,” Cotton said. “I just want to thank
them all for helping me out, every one of them; they’re all great people
and wonderful musicians. I can’t thank them enough.”

“I was introduced to Mr. Cotton by Clifford Antone about 10 years ago on
my first night in Austin at the foot of the legendary Antone’s stage.
Cotton shook my hand and said ‘ Good to meet you young lady, I hear you
can sing a bit and I look forward to hearing you.’ To get a call from
him to actually sing with him on his record is one of my all time treats
that I will grin and talk it about for many years to come!”
– Ruthie Foster

Sometimes, too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil a good thing, but
Cotton says in this case, the more, the merrier.

“It was no problem at all, you know what I mean? I’m as much of a fan of
the music that they play as they are of me… it’s just so beautiful,” he
said.

Recently, Superharp had the opportunity to help pay tribute to a couple
of his former employers on the Blues at the Crossroads II Tour: Muddy &
The Wolf. Along with the Fabulous T-Birds, Bob Margolin, Jody Williams
and Tinsley Ellis, Cotton helped honor the fathers of electric Chicago
blues. Cotton’s inclusion on the tour made perfect sense, especially
considering he originally helped breathe life into some of the songs
that were being feted on the tour. Even though back in the day, he had
no reason to think that those songs would be more popular today than
they were back in the 50s and 60s when he was playing them for the first
time.

“No … I had no idea or feeling of that. I just worked with those guys
(Muddy and The Wolf) and had a good time doing it,” he said. “I really
didn’t have any thought about that (the enduring staying power of the
music). I was just trying to help those guys and the songs we were
playing. I was trying to do a good job.”

‘Doing a good job’ is what Cotton has been all about since picking up
the harmonica as a wee little lad in Tunica, Mississippi.

It quickly became apparent that he and the harmonica was a match made in
heaven.

“My mother could play harmonica and she could make it sound like a
train. So when I first started playing, that’s what I tried to play. I
would sit on the side of the bed with my harp and try to sound like that
train,” Cotton said.

Another thing that caught the attention of young Cotton was the
legendary King Biscuit Time radio program that was (and still is)
broadcast on KFFA, out of Helena, Arkansas. The featured performer on
those 15-minute shows was, of course, Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice
Miller). Showing that he most certainly was a naturally- gifted musician
from the get-go, it took Cotton precious little time before he could
blow Sonny Boy’s theme song on the harp, note for note.

After both his parents tragically passed away, Cotton went to live with
one of his mother’s brothers. It was during this time that he began to
realize the advantages of being able to blow the harp.

“Well, I was living with my uncle, making about $3 a day, working in the
fields and cutting stumps and things like that. One evening, I sat on
the steps of the commissary – the place where we got paid – and played
harmonica and made about $45 in an hour,” he said. “My uncle had made
$36 for two week’s worth of work. So my uncle said, ‘You don’t belong
here.’”

In short order, Cotton’s uncle took him to live with Sonny Boy when he
was but a mere nine years old.

“I didn’t really know nothing about the blues then, but I did know Sonny
Boy because he played on that radio show. And then my uncle took me to
(live with) him and I stayed with him for six years,” said Cotton. “When
we first met, I just walked up and started playing for him and he
started paying attention. Whatever he played today, I could play
tomorrow.”

The thought of a pre-teenager living and juking all over the south with
the notoriously irascible Sonny Boy Williamson might be cause for a bit
of concern, but according to Cotton, that was not the case at all.

“He was really a sweet guy and he had a sweet wife … a really nice
woman,” he said. “But they got on bad terms and she finally left him and
went to Milwaukee.”

The teen-aged Cotton and Sonny Boy gigged all over Arkansas and
Mississippi, with Cotton opening the show by playing outside the juke
joints because he was too young to officially go inside the club.

“One day Sonny Boy went up to Milwaukee (after his wife) – just like
that. He left and he left me his band. I was 15 years old then,” Cotton
said. “But they (the band) was so much older than me … I was just a kid
… I did everything that I could do to help, but that didn’t last too
long and I couldn’t hold things together … maybe three or four months.”

Even though he was still just a teenager – and had no real home at the
time – Cotton managed to survive in Memphis by playing on Beale Street.
But it wasn’t long before his musical education hit chapter two, this
time as part of Howlin’ Wolf’s band, The Houserockers.

Just as he had with Sonny Boy, even though he was a bit on the
under-aged side of things, Cotton played juke joint after juke joint
with The Wolf.

“I met him in West Memphis, Arkansas. He knew that I could play and that
I was needing a job, so he asked me to come play with him,” Cotton said.
“And I was with him for about two years. I played on his first
recordings, ‘Moanin’ at Midnight’ and ‘How Many More Years.’ I thought
he was a nice guy. If you left him alone and didn’t cause no trouble,
you wouldn’t get none back.”


The story about how Sam Phillips first heard The Wolf sing and
immediately fell in love with his voice is well-documented. But Phillips
was also responsible for bringing Cotton into the studio to cut his
first recordings, just as he had done for Howlin’ Wolf.

“I had this radio show on KWEM in West Memphis (when he was 17 years
old) – and Sam Phillips called me up one day and said, ‘How’d you like
to make a record?’ And I said, ‘I’d love it.’ So he told me to meet him
the next Wednesday,” Cotton said. “Then we went in and he asked me to
play some songs and I had a couple of blues songs – one called ‘Oh,
Baby’ and one called ‘Straighten Up Baby’ – and I played them and he
recorded them and they played those records a lot around Memphis.”

Cotton ultimately ended up cutting four sides for Sun Records.

Most blues musicians would consider their careers more than complete
after spending time in the company of Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’
Wolf, and after also cutting your first 78 for the Sun Records label.
But for Cotton, he was just getting started. And at that point – as
incredulous as it might sound – you could say the best was yet to come;
because on a cold, winter day in 1954, Cotton crossed paths with Muddy
Waters, who at the time was on a road trip through the south.

“I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me … I mean I had heard Muddy
Waters’ voice on records before, but I had never seen him or met him.
But he had heard about me and came looking for me,” Cotton said. “Well,
Junior Wells had been in Muddy’s band, but he just up and left on that
trip. Muddy had a show in Memphis and he wanted me to play with him, so
I did.”

And as they say, the rest is history.

Cotton wound up joining Muddy’s band and ended up living in Chicago,
trading his gig on Beale Street for gigs all around the planet. But
although he was a member of Muddy’s band, that didn’t mean that Cotton
found a role in the studio with the group right off the bat. That spot
still belonged to Little Walter Jacobs.

“Well, Muddy and Little Walter had been together for a long time and
Muddy didn’t think nobody could play his (Little Walter’s) stuff. But in
1960, we went to the Newport Jazz Festival and I played (Got my)‘Mojo’
(Working) with him and he found out I could play on a record, too,” said
Cotton.

In the mid-60s, not only where the times a-changing, so too was the
musical climate. It was just before the Summer of Love – when after 12
years with Muddy – Cotton figured it was time to move on.

“I had did everything there that I could do for him (Muddy) and you
know, rock-n-roll was starting to come in and I had a different outlook
on it,” he said. “I wanted to try things and do stuff that wasn’t so
deep in the blues, you know? I mean, I really respected his music, but I
went and found him another harp player (George ‘Harmonica’ Smith) and
told him I was leaving. But Muddy was a real nice fellow and I really
respected him.”

Thus, the James Cotton Blues Band was born, with Cotton on harp and
vocals; Sam Lay on drums; Luther Tucker on guitar; and Bobby Allison
laying down the bass. And in no time at all, those cats became one
badass band, working their way across the country and holding their own
with anyone. The late, great Mike Bloomfield played on, and even
produced, Cotton’s first solo album, 1967’s The James Cotton Blues Band
(Verve).

As great as his early solo records were, there was really nothing that
compared to the way that Cotton owned the bandstand in concert. Not only
would he blow the harp so hard that it would literally fall to pieces in
his hands, he would also back-flip and somersault all over the stage,
making for one must-see show.

Even though he was now a veteran band leader with albums to his credit
and his own name on the marquee, Cotton didn’t close the door on a
reunion with the Hoochie Coochie man in the late 1970s. Along with a
little help from Johnny Winter, Cotton hooked back up with Muddy and
recorded the seminal Hard Again (Blue Sky) album. Then, just like in the
good old days, they hit the road for a lengthy tour to promote the
platter.

“That was a lot of fun, it really was,” said Cotton. “We had such a good
time recording that album and then playing those shows. A lot of fun.”

In a career that’s so jam-packed with highlights it’s ready to burst at
the seams, another shining moment for Cotton occurred in 1990 when he
teamed up with Carey Bell, Junior Wells and Billy Branch for the amazing
Harp Attack! (Alligator Records). “We just had a really good time in the
studio making that,” he said.

Maybe the most amazing thing about James Cotton is that despite playing
the blues for almost 70 years, he has no intention to stop, nor does he
have any desire to retire.

“Retire? No. What else am I going to do?” he said. “I’m going to keep
playing the blues. I don’t have any thoughts of retiring.”

It would be hard to imagine the blues without James Cotton’s
contributions to the art form, even if he had no real designs to do
anything other than just blow the harmonica when he first got into
music.

“I didn’t think about what I was doing … I just loved to play and I was
just lucky. I never knew it would lead to something like this. It was
something that I knew I could do and something that I was good at,” he
said. “But I don’t know that I ever really thought about doing it
forever.”

Visit James’ website at
http://jamescottonsuperharp.com/


Photos by Bob Kieser © 2013

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