James Cotton

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At a Glance

Nationality: American
Born: Jul 01 1935


Biography

Seems like James Cotton's mighty harmonica is everywhere you look these days. With a Grammy Award for his Verve album Deep in the Blues now a prominent feature of his trophy case and a full touring itinerary keeping him on the road just as much as he wants to be, this powerhouse postwar Chicago blues legend is enjoying a career renaissance. Blowing his wailing harp on blues rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd's album, guesting on the network TV gabfests of David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, hauling away various blues awards by the basketful--you're liable to encounter James almost anywhere. Not bad ... Read more

Seems like James Cotton's mighty harmonica is everywhere you look these days. With a Grammy Award for his Verve album Deep in the Blues now a prominent feature of his trophy case and a full touring itinerary keeping him on the road just as much as he wants to be, this powerhouse postwar Chicago blues legend is enjoying a career renaissance. Blowing his wailing harp on blues rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd's album, guesting on the network TV gabfests of David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, hauling away various blues awards by the basketful--you're liable to encounter James almost anywhere. Not bad for a gent who cut his first record as a leader way back in 1953. Born in Tunica, Mississippi on July 1, 1935, little James contented himself imitating barnyard animals on his harmonica until he caught an earful of the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson's daily King Biscuit Time radio broadcasts over KFFA from Helena, Arkansas. Suddenly the lad knew what he wanted to do in life. At the tender age of nine, he met his wizened idol for the first time. The two rapidly struck up a close friendship. "How me and Sonny really got started is my uncle walked up and kind of took the conversation over," recalls James. "This theme song that he used to play when they came on the radio station KFFA in Helena, I walked up and played it for him. And I played it note for note. And he looked at that. He had to pay attention." Though the normally irascible Williamson didn't actually show his protégé how to play the harmonica over the next few years, James assimilated his signature licks just the same. "I used to go down there and just watch him do it all the time," he says. "He didn't teach me much about anything. I just watched the things he'd do, because I wanted to be just like him. Anything he played, I played it." At age 15, James inherited the nomadic Williamson's band. "Sonny Boy gave it to me," says James. "Him and his wife, I don't know what that was all about. She moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we was in West Memphis, Arkansas. So I guess after she was there six or seven months, Sonny Boy couldn't take it no more. He just walked in one night and gave me the band, and cut out the next morning." James was too young and carefree to keep the combo together for long, but no matter: the Memphis blues circuit held plenty of opportunities for a fast-rising harpist. He played with Howlin' Wolf (when one was on stage, the other would keep a wary eye on the door, making sure the money wasn't funny), then teamed with explosive guitarist Pat Hare as a duo, with James doubling on drums. As a matter of fact, James played drums on "Straighten Up Baby," half of his 1953 debut single for Sam Phillips' Sun Records, rather than harp. His two classic Sun singles also included the raw-edged "Hold Me In Your Arms" and "Cotton Crop Blues." In 1954, Muddy Waters rolled through Memphis, in search of a harp player. Young James's life would never be the same. "They'd been on a tour down through Florida, Georgia, Mississippi," he says. "I was in West Memphis, Arkansas. Junior Wells was with the band. And I don't know what happened to him, but Junior left 'em out there on the road. I had been doing records with Sun Records in Memphis, and they knew that I lived in Memphis. So they came looking for me." It wasn't exactly an easy task to fill the shoes of his illustrious predecessor, Little Walter. Muddy expected his new recruit to play Walter's solos verbatim. "Really frustrating, because you're being somebody that you ain't," James says. "It went like that for about six, seven years. Then I just finally had to tell him, 'Hey man, I never will be Little Walter. You've just got to give me a chance to be myself.'" Nevertheless, it took a good while before Leonard Chess was entirely comfortable with the idea of allowing James to record as Muddy's sideman; until then, Walter remained at Muddy's side for his seminal Chess sessions. But Cotton's explosive solo on Muddy's searing version of "Got My Mojo Working," captured live at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, established James as his own man forevermore. Finally, in 1966, it was time for James to strike out on his own. "I loved Muddy very much, and I respected him very much," explains James. "I did all I could do there. It was time to move on to something else." So he assembled his own killer band and hit the road running, intent on proving his own worth as a bandleader whose stratospheric energy levels were unparalleled among the Chicago greats. It's that young, fire-breathing James that's front and center on the Justin Time albums. Backed by guitarist Luther Tucker, pianist Alberto Gianquinto, bassist Bob Anderson, and drummer Francis Clay, Cotton rips through a heart- stopping set captured live in Montreal in 1967 that's as exciting as anything he's laid down in concert as a bandleader during a distinguished recording career that's included stops at Verve (his first three solo LPs, notably his eponymous 1967 debut album), Buddah (a stint that included his fiery '74 LP 100% Cotton), Alligator (typified by his 1984 stunner High Compression and a 1990 summit meeting with fellow harp giants Junior Wells, Carey Bell, and Billy Branch called Harp Attack!), Antone's (1991's Mighty Long Time), and Verve once again, where he corralled a Grammy for Deep in the Blues. Touring now with a solid trio behind him (guitarist Rico McFarland, pianist David Maxwell, and on vocals, a rotating triumvirate of Darrell Nulisch, Joe Beard, or fellow ex-Waters harpist Mojo Buford), James Cotton is still a blues force to be reckoned with. And he still lives by the lessons he learned during his dozen years as harmonica foil to the king of Chicago blues. "One of the first things Muddy Waters told me was that when you play loud, you play loud to cover up all the mistakes," remembers James. "If you play the music, it doesn't have to be loud." It just has to be good, and James Cotton never has any problem meeting that standard.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------“Among the greats of all time…. He blazes on harp with brilliant virtuosity.”
–Rolling Stone
“The greatest living blues harmonica player.” –The New York Daily News

“The blues is all about feeling,” says Grammy Award-winning harmonica legend JAMES “MR. SUPERHARP” COTTON. “If I don’t feel it, I can’t play it.” Now in his 69th year as a professional musician (starting at age nine), James Cotton not only feels it, he lives it. His overwhelmingly powerful harmonica is one of the iconic sounds of the blues. His skills are unrivaled, his story the stuff of legend. Born on a cotton plantation in Tunica, Mississippi on July 1, 1935, Cotton learned harmonica directly from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) as a small child. He toured with Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf, recorded for Sun Records, and spent 12 years with Muddy Waters before stepping out on his own. Leading his own band, he earned his reputation as one of the most commanding live blues performers in the world—a man who could literally suck the reeds out of his harmonica from the pure force of his playing—one high-energy performance at a time.

His new Alligator album, COTTON MOUTH MAN, is a joyous celebration of his life in the blues. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Grammy-winning producer/songwriter/drummer Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, Joe Louis Walker, Susan Tedeschi), the album is a riveting, good-time musical journey through sounds and scenes from Cotton’s long and storied career. With seven songs co-written by Cotton (more originals than he’s ever included on one release) and Hambridge (who co-wrote five additional tracks), the stories the album tells are Cotton’s own, inspired by his colorful and sometimes perilous life. Throughout the CD Cotton’s blast-furnace harmonica sound and larger-than-life personality are front and center.

Helping Cotton tell his stories and showcase his music are guests GREGG ALLMAN, JOE BONAMASSA, RUTHIE FOSTER, WARREN HAYNES, DELBERT MCCLINTON AND KEB MO. Forming the core of the backing band on the CD are Hambridge (drums), Rob McNelley (guitar), Chuck Leavell (keyboards) and Glenn Worf (bass). Tommy MacDonald and Colin Linden each add guitar to one track. Darrell Nulisch, who has been singing in Cotton’s band for many years, expertly handles the vocals on five tracks, while the other members of Cotton’s road band—Tom Holland, Noel Neal and Jerry Porter—are also on board on some of the songs. Cotton, who, after a bout with throat cancer turned the vocal duties over to others, was inspired by the sessions to return to the microphone. He brings the album to a warm-hearted close singing his own “Bonnie Blue” (the name of the plantation where he was born), helping to make COTTON MOUTH MAN the most personal, celebratory and just plain fun recording of his seven-decade career. According to Cotton, “I feel so happy about the music in this album. My hope is that everyone who listens feels it. I know I sure did!”

Cotton first recorded under his own name for the CHICAGO/THE BLUES/TODAY! series on Vanguard, and, along with Otis Spann, cut THE BLUES NEVER DIE! for Prestige before forming the first James Cotton Blues Band. He made his first solo albums—three for Verve and one for Vanguard—in the late 1960s. With bands featuring outstanding musicians including famed guitarist Luther Tucker, he quickly rose to the top of the blues and rock worlds. With his gale-force sound and fearless boogie band (later featuring Matt “Guitar” Murphy), it wasn’t long before he was adopted by the burgeoning hippie audience as one of their own. Cotton shared stages with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Santana, Steve Miller, Freddie King and many others.

Cotton’s blistering talent and full-throttle energy kept him in demand at concert halls all over the country. He played the Fillmore East in New York, the Fillmore West in San Francisco and every major rock and blues venue in between. During the 1970s, he cut three albums for Buddah and one for Capitol. He rejoined his old boss Muddy Waters for a series of Muddy albums produced by Johnny Winter, starting with HARD AGAIN in 1977. Cotton also guested on recordings by Koko Taylor and many others. He was joined on his own albums by stars like Todd Rundgren, Steve Miller, Johnny Winter, Dr. John, David Sanborn, Charlie Haden, Michael Bloomfield and Cissy Houston.

Cotton signed with Alligator Records in 1984, releasing HIGH COMPRESSION and LIVE FROM CHICAGO, MR. SUPERHARP HIMSELF! (which earned him the first of his four Grammy nominations). In 1990 he joined fellow Chicago harp masters for the all-star release HARP ATTACK!. In 1991 the Smithsonian Institution added one of his harmonicas to their permanent collection. Cotton won a Grammy Award in 1996 for his Verve album, DEEP IN THE BLUES, and was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2006. During the 2000s Cotton has continued recording and touring relentlessly, playing clubs, concert halls and festivals all over the world, electrifying audiences wherever he performs. Cotton’s 2009 return-to-Alligator release, GIANT, was Grammy-nominated. USA TODAY said, “Since 1966 James Cotton has been carrying the Chicago sound to the world. On GIANT, he pours 75 years of living into that harmonica and out comes devastating and powerful blasts of notes.”

In June 2010, Cotton was honored at New York’s Lincoln Center, where his friends Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and others paid tribute to him in an all-star concert. In 2013 he toured as part of the all-star “Blues At The Crossroads II,” a tribute to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and he continues to perform nationally and internationally with his own high-octane James Cotton Blues Band. Nobody has more fun playing the blues, and the telepathic communication between Cotton and his band (whom he refers to as “my family”) creates inspiring, soulful music that leaves his audience on their feet, grinning and cheering for more. Cotton has recently been signed by the prestigious Rosebud Agency and will be travelling the world in support of the new album.

COTTON MOUTH MAN proves James Cotton’s high-compression blues harmonica playing is still a true force of nature, while his songs and stories are a living history of the blues. As The San Francisco Examiner says, “James Cotton is an inimitable blues legend. His wailing harmonica blows them away. His improvisations on the blues are full of fun and good humor. The blues don’t get much better.”

This biography was provided by the artist or their representative.

Seems like James Cotton's mighty harmonica is everywhere you look these days. With a Grammy Award for his Verve album Deep in the Blues now a prominent feature of his trophy case and a full touring itinerary keeping him on the road just as much as he wants to be, this powerhouse postwar Chicago blues legend is enjoying a career renaissance. Blowing his wailing harp on blues rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd's album, guesting on the network TV gabfests of David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, hauling away various blues awards by the basketful--you're liable to encounter James almost anywhere. Not bad for a gent who cut his first record as a leader way back in 1953. Born in Tunica, Mississippi on July 1, 1935, little James contented himself imitating barnyard animals on his harmonica until he caught an earful of the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson's daily King Biscuit Time radio broadcasts over KFFA from Helena, Arkansas. Suddenly the lad knew what he wanted to do in life. At the tender age of nine, he met his wizened idol for the first time. The two rapidly struck up a close friendship. "How me and Sonny really got started is my uncle walked up and kind of took the conversation over," recalls James. "This theme song that he used to play when they came on the radio station KFFA in Helena, I walked up and played it for him. And I played it note for note. And he looked at that. He had to pay attention." Though the normally irascible Williamson didn't actually show his protégé how to play the harmonica over the next few years, James assimilated his signature licks just the same. "I used to go down there and just watch him do it all the time," he says. "He didn't teach me much about anything. I just watched the things he'd do, because I wanted to be just like him. Anything he played, I played it." At age 15, James inherited the nomadic Williamson's band. "Sonny Boy gave it to me," says James. "Him and his wife, I don't know what that was all about. She moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we was in West Memphis, Arkansas. So I guess after she was there six or seven months, Sonny Boy couldn't take it no more. He just walked in one night and gave me the band, and cut out the next morning." James was too young and carefree to keep the combo together for long, but no matter: the Memphis blues circuit held plenty of opportunities for a fast-rising harpist. He played with Howlin' Wolf (when one was on stage, the other would keep a wary eye on the door, making sure the money wasn't funny), then teamed with explosive guitarist Pat Hare as a duo, with James doubling on drums. As a matter of fact, James played drums on "Straighten Up Baby," half of his 1953 debut single for Sam Phillips' Sun Records, rather than harp. His two classic Sun singles also included the raw-edged "Hold Me In Your Arms" and "Cotton Crop Blues." In 1954, Muddy Waters rolled through Memphis, in search of a harp player. Young James's life would never be the same. "They'd been on a tour down through Florida, Georgia, Mississippi," he says. "I was in West Memphis, Arkansas. Junior Wells was with the band. And I don't know what happened to him, but Junior left 'em out there on the road. I had been doing records with Sun Records in Memphis, and they knew that I lived in Memphis. So they came looking for me." It wasn't exactly an easy task to fill the shoes of his illustrious predecessor, Little Walter. Muddy expected his new recruit to play Walter's solos verbatim. "Really frustrating, because you're being somebody that you ain't," James says. "It went like that for about six, seven years. Then I just finally had to tell him, 'Hey man, I never will be Little Walter. You've just got to give me a chance to be myself.'" Nevertheless, it took a good while before Leonard Chess was entirely comfortable with the idea of allowing James to record as Muddy's sideman; until then, Walter remained at Muddy's side for his seminal Chess sessions. But Cotton's explosive solo on Muddy's searing version of "Got My Mojo Working," captured live at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, established James as his own man forevermore. Finally, in 1966, it was time for James to strike out on his own. "I loved Muddy very much, and I respected him very much," explains James. "I did all I could do there. It was time to move on to something else." So he assembled his own killer band and hit the road running, intent on proving his own worth as a bandleader whose stratospheric energy levels were unparalleled among the Chicago greats. It's that young, fire-breathing James that's front and center on the Justin Time albums. Backed by guitarist Luther Tucker, pianist Alberto Gianquinto, bassist Bob Anderson, and drummer Francis Clay, Cotton rips through a heart- stopping set captured live in Montreal in 1967 that's as exciting as anything he's laid down in concert as a bandleader during a distinguished recording career that's included stops at Verve (his first three solo LPs, notably his eponymous 1967 debut album), Buddah (a stint that included his fiery '74 LP 100% Cotton), Alligator (typified by his 1984 stunner High Compression and a 1990 summit meeting with fellow harp giants Junior Wells, Carey Bell, and Billy Branch called Harp Attack!), Antone's (1991's Mighty Long Time), and Verve once again, where he corralled a Grammy for Deep in the Blues. Touring now with a solid trio behind him (guitarist Rico McFarland, pianist David Maxwell, and on vocals, a rotating triumvirate of Darrell Nulisch, Joe Beard, or fellow ex-Waters harpist Mojo Buford), James Cotton is still a blues force to be reckoned with. And he still lives by the lessons he learned during his dozen years as harmonica foil to the king of Chicago blues. "One of the first things Muddy Waters told me was that when you play loud, you play loud to cover up all the mistakes," remembers James. "If you play the music, it doesn't have to be loud." It just has to be good, and James Cotton never has any problem meeting that standard.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------“Among the greats of all time…. He blazes on harp with brilliant virtuosity.”
–Rolling Stone
“The greatest living blues harmonica player.” –The New York Daily News

“The blues is all about feeling,” says Grammy Award-winning harmonica legend JAMES “MR. SUPERHARP” COTTON. “If I don’t feel it, I can’t play it.” Now in his 69th year as a professional musician (starting at age nine), James Cotton not only feels it, he lives it. His overwhelmingly powerful harmonica is one of the iconic sounds of the blues. His skills are unrivaled, his story the stuff of legend. Born on a cotton plantation in Tunica, Mississippi on July 1, 1935, Cotton learned harmonica directly from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) as a small child. He toured with Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf, recorded for Sun Records, and spent 12 years with Muddy Waters before stepping out on his own. Leading his own band, he earned his reputation as one of the most commanding live blues performers in the world—a man who could literally suck the reeds out of his harmonica from the pure force of his playing—one high-energy performance at a time.

His new Alligator album, COTTON MOUTH MAN, is a joyous celebration of his life in the blues. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Grammy-winning producer/songwriter/drummer Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, Joe Louis Walker, Susan Tedeschi), the album is a riveting, good-time musical journey through sounds and scenes from Cotton’s long and storied career. With seven songs co-written by Cotton (more originals than he’s ever included on one release) and Hambridge (who co-wrote five additional tracks), the stories the album tells are Cotton’s own, inspired by his colorful and sometimes perilous life. Throughout the CD Cotton’s blast-furnace harmonica sound and larger-than-life personality are front and center.

Helping Cotton tell his stories and showcase his music are guests GREGG ALLMAN, JOE BONAMASSA, RUTHIE FOSTER, WARREN HAYNES, DELBERT MCCLINTON AND KEB MO. Forming the core of the backing band on the CD are Hambridge (drums), Rob McNelley (guitar), Chuck Leavell (keyboards) and Glenn Worf (bass). Tommy MacDonald and Colin Linden each add guitar to one track. Darrell Nulisch, who has been singing in Cotton’s band for many years, expertly handles the vocals on five tracks, while the other members of Cotton’s road band—Tom Holland, Noel Neal and Jerry Porter—are also on board on some of the songs. Cotton, who, after a bout with throat cancer turned the vocal duties over to others, was inspired by the sessions to return to the microphone. He brings the album to a warm-hearted close singing his own “Bonnie Blue” (the name of the plantation where he was born), helping to make COTTON MOUTH MAN the most personal, celebratory and just plain fun recording of his seven-decade career. According to Cotton, “I feel so happy about the music in this album. My hope is that everyone who listens feels it. I know I sure did!”

Cotton first recorded under his own name for the CHICAGO/THE BLUES/TODAY! series on Vanguard, and, along with Otis Spann, cut THE BLUES NEVER DIE! for Prestige before forming the first James Cotton Blues Band. He made his first solo albums—three for Verve and one for Vanguard—in the late 1960s. With bands featuring outstanding musicians including famed guitarist Luther Tucker, he quickly rose to the top of the blues and rock worlds. With his gale-force sound and fearless boogie band (later featuring Matt “Guitar” Murphy), it wasn’t long before he was adopted by the burgeoning hippie audience as one of their own. Cotton shared stages with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Santana, Steve Miller, Freddie King and many others.

Cotton’s blistering talent and full-throttle energy kept him in demand at concert halls all over the country. He played the Fillmore East in New York, the Fillmore West in San Francisco and every major rock and blues venue in between. During the 1970s, he cut three albums for Buddah and one for Capitol. He rejoined his old boss Muddy Waters for a series of Muddy albums produced by Johnny Winter, starting with HARD AGAIN in 1977. Cotton also guested on recordings by Koko Taylor and many others. He was joined on his own albums by stars like Todd Rundgren, Steve Miller, Johnny Winter, Dr. John, David Sanborn, Charlie Haden, Michael Bloomfield and Cissy Houston.

Cotton signed with Alligator Records in 1984, releasing HIGH COMPRESSION and LIVE FROM CHICAGO, MR. SUPERHARP HIMSELF! (which earned him the first of his four Grammy nominations). In 1990 he joined fellow Chicago harp masters for the all-star release HARP ATTACK!. In 1991 the Smithsonian Institution added one of his harmonicas to their permanent collection. Cotton won a Grammy Award in 1996 for his Verve album, DEEP IN THE BLUES, and was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2006. During the 2000s Cotton has continued recording and touring relentlessly, playing clubs, concert halls and festivals all over the world, electrifying audiences wherever he performs. Cotton’s 2009 return-to-Alligator release, GIANT, was Grammy-nominated. USA TODAY said, “Since 1966 James Cotton has been carrying the Chicago sound to the world. On GIANT, he pours 75 years of living into that harmonica and out comes devastating and powerful blasts of notes.”

In June 2010, Cotton was honored at New York’s Lincoln Center, where his friends Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and others paid tribute to him in an all-star concert. In 2013 he toured as part of the all-star “Blues At The Crossroads II,” a tribute to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and he continues to perform nationally and internationally with his own high-octane James Cotton Blues Band. Nobody has more fun playing the blues, and the telepathic communication between Cotton and his band (whom he refers to as “my family”) creates inspiring, soulful music that leaves his audience on their feet, grinning and cheering for more. Cotton has recently been signed by the prestigious Rosebud Agency and will be travelling the world in support of the new album.

COTTON MOUTH MAN proves James Cotton’s high-compression blues harmonica playing is still a true force of nature, while his songs and stories are a living history of the blues. As The San Francisco Examiner says, “James Cotton is an inimitable blues legend. His wailing harmonica blows them away. His improvisations on the blues are full of fun and good humor. The blues don’t get much better.”

This biography was provided by the artist or their representative.

Seems like James Cotton's mighty harmonica is everywhere you look these days. With a Grammy Award for his Verve album Deep in the Blues now a prominent feature of his trophy case and a full touring itinerary keeping him on the road just as much as he wants to be, this powerhouse postwar Chicago blues legend is enjoying a career renaissance. Blowing his wailing harp on blues rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd's album, guesting on the network TV gabfests of David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, hauling away various blues awards by the basketful--you're liable to encounter James almost anywhere. Not bad for a gent who cut his first record as a leader way back in 1953. Born in Tunica, Mississippi on July 1, 1935, little James contented himself imitating barnyard animals on his harmonica until he caught an earful of the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson's daily King Biscuit Time radio broadcasts over KFFA from Helena, Arkansas. Suddenly the lad knew what he wanted to do in life. At the tender age of nine, he met his wizened idol for the first time. The two rapidly struck up a close friendship. "How me and Sonny really got started is my uncle walked up and kind of took the conversation over," recalls James. "This theme song that he used to play when they came on the radio station KFFA in Helena, I walked up and played it for him. And I played it note for note. And he looked at that. He had to pay attention." Though the normally irascible Williamson didn't actually show his protégé how to play the harmonica over the next few years, James assimilated his signature licks just the same. "I used to go down there and just watch him do it all the time," he says. "He didn't teach me much about anything. I just watched the things he'd do, because I wanted to be just like him. Anything he played, I played it." At age 15, James inherited the nomadic Williamson's band. "Sonny Boy gave it to me," says James. "Him and his wife, I don't know what that was all about. She moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we was in West Memphis, Arkansas. So I guess after she was there six or seven months, Sonny Boy couldn't take it no more. He just walked in one night and gave me the band, and cut out the next morning." James was too young and carefree to keep the combo together for long, but no matter: the Memphis blues circuit held plenty of opportunities for a fast-rising harpist. He played with Howlin' Wolf (when one was on stage, the other would keep a wary eye on the door, making sure the money wasn't funny), then teamed with explosive guitarist Pat Hare as a duo, with James doubling on drums. As a matter of fact, James played drums on "Straighten Up Baby," half of his 1953 debut single for Sam Phillips' Sun Records, rather than harp. His two classic Sun singles also included the raw-edged "Hold Me In Your Arms" and "Cotton Crop Blues." In 1954, Muddy Waters rolled through Memphis, in search of a harp player. Young James's life would never be the same. "They'd been on a tour down through Florida, Georgia, Mississippi," he says. "I was in West Memphis, Arkansas. Junior Wells was with the band. And I don't know what happened to him, but Junior left 'em out there on the road. I had been doing records with Sun Records in Memphis, and they knew that I lived in Memphis. So they came looking for me." It wasn't exactly an easy task to fill the shoes of his illustrious predecessor, Little Walter. Muddy expected his new recruit to play Walter's solos verbatim. "Really frustrating, because you're being somebody that you ain't," James says. "It went like that for about six, seven years. Then I just finally had to tell him, 'Hey man, I never will be Little Walter. You've just got to give me a chance to be myself.'" Nevertheless, it took a good while before Leonard Chess was entirely comfortable with the idea of allowing James to record as Muddy's sideman; until then, Walter remained at Muddy's side for his seminal Chess sessions. But Cotton's explosive solo on Muddy's searing version of "Got My Mojo Working," captured live at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, established James as his own man forevermore. Finally, in 1966, it was time for James to strike out on his own. "I loved Muddy very much, and I respected him very much," explains James. "I did all I could do there. It was time to move on to something else." So he assembled his own killer band and hit the road running, intent on proving his own worth as a bandleader whose stratospheric energy levels were unparalleled among the Chicago greats. It's that young, fire-breathing James that's front and center on the Justin Time albums. Backed by guitarist Luther Tucker, pianist Alberto Gianquinto, bassist Bob Anderson, and drummer Francis Clay, Cotton rips through a heart- stopping set captured live in Montreal in 1967 that's as exciting as anything he's laid down in concert as a bandleader during a distinguished recording career that's included stops at Verve (his first three solo LPs, notably his eponymous 1967 debut album), Buddah (a stint that included his fiery '74 LP 100% Cotton), Alligator (typified by his 1984 stunner High Compression and a 1990 summit meeting with fellow harp giants Junior Wells, Carey Bell, and Billy Branch called Harp Attack!), Antone's (1991's Mighty Long Time), and Verve once again, where he corralled a Grammy for Deep in the Blues. Touring now with a solid trio behind him (guitarist Rico McFarland, pianist David Maxwell, and on vocals, a rotating triumvirate of Darrell Nulisch, Joe Beard, or fellow ex-Waters harpist Mojo Buford), James Cotton is still a blues force to be reckoned with. And he still lives by the lessons he learned during his dozen years as harmonica foil to the king of Chicago blues. "One of the first things Muddy Waters told me was that when you play loud, you play loud to cover up all the mistakes," remembers James. "If you play the music, it doesn't have to be loud." It just has to be good, and James Cotton never has any problem meeting that standard.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------“Among the greats of all time…. He blazes on harp with brilliant virtuosity.”
–Rolling Stone
“The greatest living blues harmonica player.” –The New York Daily News

“The blues is all about feeling,” says Grammy Award-winning harmonica legend JAMES “MR. SUPERHARP” COTTON. “If I don’t feel it, I can’t play it.” Now in his 69th year as a professional musician (starting at age nine), James Cotton not only feels it, he lives it. His overwhelmingly powerful harmonica is one of the iconic sounds of the blues. His skills are unrivaled, his story the stuff of legend. Born on a cotton plantation in Tunica, Mississippi on July 1, 1935, Cotton learned harmonica directly from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) as a small child. He toured with Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf, recorded for Sun Records, and spent 12 years with Muddy Waters before stepping out on his own. Leading his own band, he earned his reputation as one of the most commanding live blues performers in the world—a man who could literally suck the reeds out of his harmonica from the pure force of his playing—one high-energy performance at a time.

His new Alligator album, COTTON MOUTH MAN, is a joyous celebration of his life in the blues. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Grammy-winning producer/songwriter/drummer Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, Joe Louis Walker, Susan Tedeschi), the album is a riveting, good-time musical journey through sounds and scenes from Cotton’s long and storied career. With seven songs co-written by Cotton (more originals than he’s ever included on one release) and Hambridge (who co-wrote five additional tracks), the stories the album tells are Cotton’s own, inspired by his colorful and sometimes perilous life. Throughout the CD Cotton’s blast-furnace harmonica sound and larger-than-life personality are front and center.

Helping Cotton tell his stories and showcase his music are guests GREGG ALLMAN, JOE BONAMASSA, RUTHIE FOSTER, WARREN HAYNES, DELBERT MCCLINTON AND KEB MO. Forming the core of the backing band on the CD are Hambridge (drums), Rob McNelley (guitar), Chuck Leavell (keyboards) and Glenn Worf (bass). Tommy MacDonald and Colin Linden each add guitar to one track. Darrell Nulisch, who has been singing in Cotton’s band for many years, expertly handles the vocals on five tracks, while the other members of Cotton’s road band—Tom Holland, Noel Neal and Jerry Porter—are also on board on some of the songs. Cotton, who, after a bout with throat cancer turned the vocal duties over to others, was inspired by the sessions to return to the microphone. He brings the album to a warm-hearted close singing his own “Bonnie Blue” (the name of the plantation where he was born), helping to make COTTON MOUTH MAN the most personal, celebratory and just plain fun recording of his seven-decade career. According to Cotton, “I feel so happy about the music in this album. My hope is that everyone who listens feels it. I know I sure did!”

Cotton first recorded under his own name for the CHICAGO/THE BLUES/TODAY! series on Vanguard, and, along with Otis Spann, cut THE BLUES NEVER DIE! for Prestige before forming the first James Cotton Blues Band. He made his first solo albums—three for Verve and one for Vanguard—in the late 1960s. With bands featuring outstanding musicians including famed guitarist Luther Tucker, he quickly rose to the top of the blues and rock worlds. With his gale-force sound and fearless boogie band (later featuring Matt “Guitar” Murphy), it wasn’t long before he was adopted by the burgeoning hippie audience as one of their own. Cotton shared stages with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Santana, Steve Miller, Freddie King and many others.

Cotton’s blistering talent and full-throttle energy kept him in demand at concert halls all over the country. He played the Fillmore East in New York, the Fillmore West in San Francisco and every major rock and blues venue in between. During the 1970s, he cut three albums for Buddah and one for Capitol. He rejoined his old boss Muddy Waters for a series of Muddy albums produced by Johnny Winter, starting with HARD AGAIN in 1977. Cotton also guested on recordings by Koko Taylor and many others. He was joined on his own albums by stars like Todd Rundgren, Steve Miller, Johnny Winter, Dr. John, David Sanborn, Charlie Haden, Michael Bloomfield and Cissy Houston.

Cotton signed with Alligator Records in 1984, releasing HIGH COMPRESSION and LIVE FROM CHICAGO, MR. SUPERHARP HIMSELF! (which earned him the first of his four Grammy nominations). In 1990 he joined fellow Chicago harp masters for the all-star release HARP ATTACK!. In 1991 the Smithsonian Institution added one of his harmonicas to their permanent collection. Cotton won a Grammy Award in 1996 for his Verve album, DEEP IN THE BLUES, and was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2006. During the 2000s Cotton has continued recording and touring relentlessly, playing clubs, concert halls and festivals all over the world, electrifying audiences wherever he performs. Cotton’s 2009 return-to-Alligator release, GIANT, was Grammy-nominated. USA TODAY said, “Since 1966 James Cotton has been carrying the Chicago sound to the world. On GIANT, he pours 75 years of living into that harmonica and out comes devastating and powerful blasts of notes.”

In June 2010, Cotton was honored at New York’s Lincoln Center, where his friends Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and others paid tribute to him in an all-star concert. In 2013 he toured as part of the all-star “Blues At The Crossroads II,” a tribute to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and he continues to perform nationally and internationally with his own high-octane James Cotton Blues Band. Nobody has more fun playing the blues, and the telepathic communication between Cotton and his band (whom he refers to as “my family”) creates inspiring, soulful music that leaves his audience on their feet, grinning and cheering for more. Cotton has recently been signed by the prestigious Rosebud Agency and will be travelling the world in support of the new album.

COTTON MOUTH MAN proves James Cotton’s high-compression blues harmonica playing is still a true force of nature, while his songs and stories are a living history of the blues. As The San Francisco Examiner says, “James Cotton is an inimitable blues legend. His wailing harmonica blows them away. His improvisations on the blues are full of fun and good humor. The blues don’t get much better.”

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