James Cotton, one of the world’s most popular and dynamic blues harmonica players, was born just east of this site on the Bonnie Blue plantation on July 1, 1935. Cotton apprenticed with harmonica master Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller) in Helena, Arkansas, and spent twelve years in Muddy Waters’s band in Chicago. In 1966 Cotton left Muddy to start his own band, and later earned the nickname “Mr. Superharp” for his high-energy performances.
James Cotton took to the blues life at an early age. He used his first harmonica, a gift from his mother, to imitate the sounds of trains and cackling hens, when he was five or six years old. But blues music was unwelcome in his parents’ religious household, and Cotton preferred to stay with his bachelor uncle, Wiley Green, who made bootleg whiskey, gambled, and played blues piano. In about 1944 Green introduced Cotton to Sonny Boy Williamson, who was broadcasting the blues over KFFA radio in Helena, Arkansas. Williamson took the youngster in, and Cotton lived with Williamson and his wife Mattie for several years, first in Helena and then in West Memphis.
When Williamson moved from West Memphis, he left his band and his radio show on KWEM with his protege. Cotton found himself unprepared to be a bandleader, however, and ended up working as an ice hauler, short order cook, shoe shine boy, and dump truck driver, although he continued to perform with Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Nix, and others. In 1952 he made his first studio appearance at Sam Phillips’s Memphis Recording Service, playing harmonica on Wolf’s Chess recording “Saddle My Pony.” Phillips called Cotton back into the studio in 1953-54 to cut his first tracks as a singer for Sun Records, including “Straighten Up Baby” and “Cotton Crop Blues.” In 1954 Muddy Waters needed a harmonica player to replace Junior Wells, who had left the band during a Southern tour, and when he got to Memphis, Waters hired Cotton. Cotton moved to Chicago and put in more years with the band than any of Muddy’s other harmonica players, while continuing to record singles and assorted album tracks on his own, including two records made in England in 1961.
Cotton formed the James Cotton Blues Band in 1966. Through friendships with Chicagoans Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, who were instrumental in bringing the blues to rock audiences of the 1960s, Cotton signed with Butterfield’s manager, Albert Grossman, who also represented Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Cotton was subsequently able to work consistently at both rock venues and blues clubs and festivals while recording albums for Verve, Vanguard, and many other labels.
Though throat surgery forced him to curtail his singing in the 1990s, he continued to perform as one of the world’s premier blues harmonicists, heralded for his explosive style and for his mission to carry on the legacy of the blues masters who groomed him. A recipient of several Blues Music Awards, Cotton also won the 1996 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album with his CD Deep in the Blues. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.
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