Photo credit: Chris Jacobs.

By Paul Freeman

After more than 60 years on stage, consummate showman, legendary bluesman, James Cotton continues to thrive on the road, coaxing wild and amazing sounds from his harmonicas.

“I’m still having a real good time,” Cotton said. “I love what I’m doing. It’s my life.”

James “Superharp” Cotton was born in Mississippi in 1935, youngest of eight brothers and sisters. They worked beside their parents in the cotton fields. On Sundays, his father Mose served as the area’s Baptist preacher. His mother Hattie played train and chicken sounds on her harmonica. James Cotton received a 15-cent harmonica as a Christmas gift.

He listened religiously to Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show and perfectly imitated the Delta blues harmonica sounds.

“It was just something I could do. I wasn’t thinking about ever making a living doing it,” Cotton said. “I just wanted to do what Sonny was doing. Everything he played, I played it.

Both of his parents died by the time Cotton turned nine. His uncle took him to meet Williamson. Cotton played Williamson’s tunes, dazzling the blues great. Williamson became Cotton’s mentor and let the boy live at his house.

Williamson played juke joints. Young Cotton played outside on the streets for tips, eventually becoming a member of Williamson’s band.

As a teen, Cotton cut four songs at Sun Records. When Williamson suddenly decided to return to his estranged wife in Wisconsin, he left his band to Cotton.

“I was 15, the youngest one in the band, and I was the bandleader. We didn’t stay together too long. I didn’t have any business doing that. It was too early. I just wanted to play. I didn’t know about going out and getting gigs for the band, all of that. So I got a job being an ice man and a short order cook.”

Cotton teamed with Howlin’ Wolf, then got his own 15-minute radio show at station KWEM, West Memphis,Arkansas.

In ‘54, in need of a new harmonica player after Junior Wells bolted, Muddy Waters heard Cotton and took him to Chicago. Cotton played in the Waters band for 12 years and, by ‘58, recorded with him on Chess Records. Before he was included on the records, Cotton was expected to recreate note-for-note the harp playing of Waters’ former stalwart, Little Walter.

“Little Walter was one of the greatest harmonica players I ever heard in my life,” Cotton said. “I finally had to tell Muddy, ‘I can’t be Little Walter. But I can play the music.’“

Over the years, Cotton had developed a distinctive, wailing style of his own and Waters eventually allowed him to shine with it.

In the ‘60s, Cotton fronted his own band. British acts like the Yardbirds and Stones had sparked a new interest in more traditional American blues artists.

“There was more blues being played in the black field. White blues is the country-and-western. But then white listeners started coming to me through the Rolling Stones. They were playing blues music and their fans started trying to find out where that sound came from.”

Bill Graham helped introduce Cotton to a wider audience. “What Bill Graham did for me was really important.”

Cotton played both Fillmores, sharing stages with such artists as Santana, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and Bonnie Raitt. He toured with Janis Joplin

“She was a strong singer and a very good person. She liked it the way she liked it. Everybody should be that way. She appreciated the blues and understood it.”

Cotton could more than hold his own with any entertainer. He wowed audiences, doing back flips and sometimes playing so fiercely, he would blow his harmonica apart.

Throat surgery and radiation treatments in ‘94 limited Cotton’s vocalizing. But his harp playing remained as expressive as ever. He racked up Grammy nominations and, in 2006, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Cotton enjoys hearing young musicians playing the blues. “They don’t play it the way we played it. We were playing’ down in the alley’ blues. They rev it up a little bit. It’s more modern. But it’s still the blues. It’s still good.

“The blues have a feeling. It’s like no other feeling. That’s something that time can’t change. The blues is here to stay. It’s part of our world. It’s part of every day. Some people got the blues and they don’t even know it. Look what’s happening now - people are getting their houses taken away from them. Jobs are hard to find. Car places are closing down. That’s the blues.”

After decades of making his living playing the blues, Cotton is still discovering nuances of the genre.

“You never learn all there is to learn. That’s what keeps life and the blues interesting.”