Skip to page content

 

“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 aprofessional musician (starting at age nine), James Cotton not only feels it, he lives it. Hisoverwhelmingly powerful harmonica is one of the iconic sounds of the blues. His skillsare 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 BoyWilliamson 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 steppingout on his own. Leading his own band, he earned his reputation as one of the mostcommanding live blues performers in the world—a man who could literally suck the reedsout of his harmonica from the pure force of his playing—one high-energy performance ata time. His new Alligator album, Cotton Mouth Man, is a joyous celebration of his life in theblues. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Grammy-winningproducer/songwriter/drummer Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, Joe Louis Walker, SusanTedeschi), the album is a riveting, good-time musical journey through sounds and scenesfrom Cotton’s long and storied career. With seven songs co-written by Cotton (moreoriginals than he’s ever included on one release) and Hambridge (who co-wrote fiveadditional tracks), the stories the album tells are Cotton’s own, inspired by his colorful andsometimes perilous life. Throughout the CD Cotton’s blast-furnace harmonica sound andlarger-than-life personality are front and center. Helping Cotton tell his stories and showcase his music are guests Gregg Allman, JoeBonamassa, Ruthie Foster, Warren Haynes, Delbert McClinton and Keb Mo. Forming thecore of the backing band on the CD are Hambridge (drums), Rob McNelley (guitar),Chuck Leavell (keyboards) and Glenn Worf (bass). Tommy MacDonald and Colin Lindeneach add guitar to one track. Darrell Nulisch, who has been singing in Cotton’s band formany years, expertly handles the vocals on five tracks, while the other members ofCotton’s road band—Tom Holland, Noel Neal and Jerry Porter—are also on board onsome of the songs. Cotton, who, after a bout with throat cancer turned the vocal dutiesover to others, was inspired by the sessions to return to the microphone. He brings thealbum to a warm-hearted close singing his own Bonnie Blue (the name of the plantationwhere he was born), helping to make Cotton Mouth Man the most personal, celebratoryand just plain fun recording of his seven-decade career. According to Cotton, “I feel sohappy about the music in this album. My hope is that everyone who listens feels it. I knowI sure did!” Cotton first recorded under his own name for the Chicago/The Blues/Today! series onVanguard, and, along with Otis Spann, cut The Blues Never Die! for Prestige beforeforming the first James Cotton Blues Band. He made his first solo albums—three forVerve and one for Vanguard—in the late 1960s. With bands featuring outstandingmusicians including famed guitarist Luther Tucker, he quickly rose to the top of the bluesand 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 hippieaudience 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 allover the country. He played the Fillmore East in New York, the Fillmore West in SanFrancisco and every major rock and blues venue in between. During the 1970s, he cutthree albums for Buddah and one for Capitol. He rejoined his old boss Muddy Waters fora 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 hisown albums by stars like Todd Rundgren, Steve Miller, Johnny Winter, Dr. John, DavidSanborn, Charlie Haden, Michael Bloomfield and Cissy Houston. Cotton signed with Alligator Records in 1984, releasing High Compression and LiveFrom Chicago, Mr. Superharp Himself! (which earned him the first of his four Grammynominations). In 1990 he joined fellow Chicago harp masters for the all-star release HarpAttack!. In 1991 the Smithsonian Institution added one of his harmonicas to theirpermanent collection. Cotton won a Grammy Award in 1996 for his Verve album, Deep InThe Blues, and was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2006. During the 2000sCotton has continued recording and touring relentlessly, playing clubs, concert halls andfestivals all over the world, electrifying audiences wherever he performs. Cotton’s 2009return-to-Alligator release, Giant, was Grammy-nominated. USA Today said, “Since 1966James Cotton has been carrying the Chicago sound to the world. On Giant, he pours 75years of living into that harmonica and out comes devastating and powerful blasts ofnotes.” In June 2010, Cotton was honored at New York’s Lincoln Center, where his friendsHubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and others paid tribute tohim in an all-star concert. In 2013 he toured as part of the all-star “Blues At TheCrossroads II,” a tribute to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and he continues to performnationally and internationally with his own high-octane James Cotton Blues Band.Nobody has more fun playing the blues, and the telepathic communication between Cottonand his band (whom he refers to as “my family”) creates inspiring, soulful music thatleaves his audience on their feet, grinning and cheering for more. Cotton has recently beensigned by the prestigious Rosebud Agency and will be travelling the world in support ofthe new album. Cotton Mouth Man proves James Cotton’s high-compression blues harmonica playing isstill a true force of nature, while his songs and stories are a living history of the blues. AsThe San Francisco Examiner says, “James Cotton is an inimitable blues legend. Hiswailing harmonica blows them away. His improvisations on the blues are full of fun andgood humor. The blues don’t get much better.”

Go to website >