James Henry Cotton, a singer, songwriter, and master of Blues harmonica has passed away at the age of 81. He leaves behind a massive discography as the principle recording artist, and an even greater list of collaborations over his 65-year career. With the exclusion of perhaps Little Walter, it would be difficult to find a more influential harp player from Cotton’s generation.
Born in 1935, the very middle of the Great Depression, Cotton’s prospects in his hometown of Tunica were limited. Like many of his contemporaries, he left home at a young age for Chicago to pursue better-paying musical endeavors. By the early 1950’s he became a member of Howlin’ Wolf’s backing band, recorded a couple sides as a solo artist for Sun Records, and eventually became a fixture in Muddy Waters’ band by 1955. His playing became synonymous with the South-side Chicago sound.
His influence on other performers is undeniable; without his playing, there would be no Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and thereby, no “Highway 61 Revisited” from Bob Dylan. Cotton’s over-driven harmonica, wailing solos, and tight “in-the-pocket” sense of rhythm became the consummate companion to electrified blues guitar. He touched thousands of performers through his playing, including me.
I got to open for James Cotton in October, 2013. I was more than familiar with his back catalogue when Danny Schawrtz called me for the gig, just two days before the show. What I didn’t understand was that James Cotton, at age 78, weighed about 275 pounds (conservative guess), and that he suffered from a prolonged vocal injury. This meant his words would come in starts and stops, in between huffs and puffs, only managing a few words at a time. Initially, I thought I was in for a long show, and that the performance would be hard to watch. I was proven wrong almost immediately, and got humbled real quick by Cotton’s playing.
He did two things that night that scared the hell out of me, both as a musician, and as a performer. Most harp players used an old-fashioned kind of mic, like a Green Bullet, modeled after old broadcast-style microphones in the day. The shape of the mic fits neatly into a pair of hands that also have to cradle a harmonica. The old-fashioned construction also “warms up” the tone of the harp, scaling back the brittle high-end frequencies. James Cotton used no such microphone during his show at the Hamilton. He used a standard, wireless, Shure SM58, with no modifications or effects. Every bit of tone came from his hands, his harp, and his mouth.
The second thing he did that still gives me goosebumps is when he played a solo: Cotton got the band to shush quieter and quieter over every cycle of 12 bars, eventually getting them to turn their guitars almost completely off, and then pulled his own microphone away. He played 12 bars without a mic, completely un-amplified, to a silent room of 500 listeners. His tone filled the room.
I cannot think of a single time in my career as a blues performer when I have been so humbled as the night I opened for James Cotton. I got to watch a master at work. It was like seeing the whirring and clicking of gears inside of a Rolex, or watching pistons pound away inside a V8. I went home, I locked the door to my apartment, I turned on Muddy Waters’ “Mojo,” and I tried to play along.
James Cotton owed his massive, lifelong career to two things: skill, and persistence. He never stopped playing, he never stopped learning, he never stopped improving… but most importantly, he never stopped. He worked from the time he left his parents in Tunica, right up until when he passed away yesterday. It is one thing to have a dream of running away from home to join a band and play music for a living. It’s something entirely different to actually follow through on the dream, and turn it into a life worth living.