Leg­endary blues har­mon­ica player

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

James Cot­ton, who learned to play the har­mon­ica as a child in the Mis­sis­sippi Delta and went on to be a ma­jor fig­ure in blues mu­sic as a side­man to Muddy Wa­ters and as a Grammy Award-win­ning solo per­former, died March 16 at a hos­pi­tal in Austin. He was 81.

His death was an­nounced by his record la­bel, Al­li­ga­tor Records. The cause was pneu­mo­nia.

Mr. Cot­ton grew up in the fa­bled Delta blues heart­land of north­ern Mis­sis­sippi and learned the har­mon­ica from his mother be­fore he be­came an or­phan at 9. He be­gan per­form­ing pro­fes­sion­ally soon there­after and brought a show­man’s flair to the clas­sic blues tra­di­tion, some­times do­ing back flips on stage.

A di­rect link to ear­lier gen­er­a­tions of blues mu­si­cians, Mr. Cot­ton later ap­peared along­side dozens of ac­claimed per­form­ers, from Ja­nis Jo­plin and B.B. King to Led Zep­pelin, Eric Clap­ton and Keith Richards.

Mr. Cot­ton wrote many tunes and sang in a gruff, gut­tural vo­cal style, but he was bet­ter known for his skill on the har­mon­ica — or “harp,” as blues mu­si­cians often call it. Along with his men­tor, Sonny Boy Wil­liamson, and other artists such as Sonny Terry, Lit­tle Wal­ter and Ju­nior Wells, Mr. Cot­ton was rec­og­nized as one of the fore­most mas­ters of the blues har­mon­ica.

“Lis­ten to Cot­ton’s har­mon­ica playing,” Chicago Tri­bune critic Howard Re­ich wrote in 2013, “gritty, gutsy, fe­ro­ciously un­in­hib­ited — and you’re hear­ing what great blues harp work is all about. No won­der they call him ‘Su­per­harp.’ ”

Grip­ping a har­mon­ica and mi­cro­phone at the same time, Mr. Cot­ton prac­ticed a tech­nique called cir­cu­lar breath­ing, in which he in­haled through his nose while con­tin­u­ing to play long, en­er­getic lines on his har­mon­ica. His ap­proach could be mourn­ful, sweet or fleet, and he some­times played so hard that the small metal-and-wood in­stru­ment fell apart in his hands.

In the early 1950s, Mr. Cot­ton recorded as a singer at Sun Records — the same Mem­phis record­ing stu­dio where Elvis Pres­ley launched his ca­reer. He then spent 12 years in Wa­ters’s band and per­formed on the singer’s ground­break­ing 1960 live al­bum from the New­port Jazz Fes­ti­val, which in­cluded a churn­ing ver­sion of “Got My Mojo Work­ing.” At one point in the song, Wa­ters and Mr. Cot­ton play­fully danced to­gether.

Mr. Cot­ton formed the James Cot­ton Blues Band in 1966 and toured the world for years, per­form­ing his harp-fo­cused ver­sion of Chicago-style blues, which also fea­tured his rhyth­mic, un­adorned singing. He re­leased the first of more than 25 al­bums in 1967.

“Twenty-four hours a day, ev­ery day, you’ll catch me with a har­mon­ica,” Mr. Cot­ton told the Los An­ge­les Times in 1990. “I sleep with ’em in the bed with me. I play for the truck­ers on the CB when we’re driv­ing down the high­way. The high­way is my home, and my Dodge van is my bed, and the blues is my com­pan­ion.”

James Henry Cot­ton was born July 1, 1935, in Tu­nica, Miss. His par­ents were share­crop­pers.

He be­gan playing the har­mon­ica when he was about 5, learn­ing to im­i­tate the sounds of chick­ens and other farm an­i­mals from his mother.

Af­ter both of his par­ents died, Mr. Cot­ton was in­tro­duced by a rel­a­tive to Rice Miller, a blues mu­si­cian and ra­dio host bet­ter known as Sonny Boy Wil­liamson. Mr. Cot­ton lived in his house­hold for the next six years.

Asked what he learned from Wil­liamson, Mr. Cot­ton replied, “How to chase women, how to drink and how to play the blues,” ac­cord­ing to the Chicago Tri­bune. “Any­thing he played to­day, I learned it to­mor­row.”

De­spite his rel­a­tive youth, Mr. Cot­ton learned a pure style of Delta blues that was fast dis­ap­pear­ing. Af­ter Wil­liamson moved to Mil­wau­kee, the 15-year-old Mr. Cot­ton briefly took over his el­der’s band and ra­dio show.

While liv­ing near Mem­phis, Mr. Cot­ton drove an ice truck and spent two years in the band of an­other blues gi­ant, Howlin’ Wolf. One of Mr. Cot­ton’s early vo­cal record­ings for Sun Records, “Cot­ton Crop Blues,” be­came a mi­nor rhythm-and-blues hit in 1954.

That year, Wa­ters in­vited Mr. Cot­ton to move to Chicago and join his band. Mr. Cot­ton said he sug­gested that Wa­ters per­form “Got My Mojo Work­ing,” which be­came one of his sig­na­ture tunes.

As the blues re­vival reached its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Cot­ton often ap­peared in con­cert or on records with younger rockand-roll stars in­flu­enced by his mu­sic. Sev­eral of his al­bums from those years, in­clud­ing “100% Cot­ton” (1974), “High Com­pres­sion” (1984) and “Live From Chicago: Mr. Su­per­harp Him­self” (1986), were ranked among his finest.

Re­united in a stu­dio with Wa­ters, Mr. Cot­ton ap­peared on the Grammy-win­ning al­bum “Hard Again” in 1977. He re­ceived three Grammy nom­i­na­tions for his own work be­fore win­ning in the best tra­di­tional blues cat­e­gory for his 1996 al­bum, “Deep in the Blues,” which fea­tured gui­tarist Joe Louis Walker and jazz bassist Char­lie Haden.

Mr. Cot­ton’s voice be­came a raspy whis­per af­ter surgery for throat can­cer in the 1990s, and he later aban­doned singing al­to­gether. His fi­nal al­bum, the Grammy-nom­i­nated “Cot­ton Mouth Man,” was re­leased in 2013. Other singers per­formed the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal songs, but Mr. Cot­ton had lost none of his vigor on har­mon­ica.

“Cot­ton is amaz­ing on th­ese cuts,” re­viewer Steve Leggett wrote on the All­mu­sic.com web­site, “his harp blasts full of pas­sion, power, and enough pure en­ergy to light up the night sky.”

Mr. Cot­ton moved from Chicago to Mem­phis in the 1990s, af­ter the death of his first wife, Ce­ola. He was in­ducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Mem­phis in 2006 and set­tled in Austin in 2010.

Sur­vivors in­clude his sec­ond wife and man­ager, Jack­lyn Hairston; three chil­dren; and nu­mer­ous grand­chil­dren and great­grand­chil­dren.

“I’m not sure why my mu­sic still speaks so di­rectly to folks,” Mr. Cot­ton told the Los An­ge­les Times in 1998. “I try to play from deep in­side of me and keep the mu­sic hon­est. I pre­fer it up­beat and up-tempo too, be­cause all the prob­lems peo­ple have . . . are gone once we start playing.”


James Cot­ton per­form­ing at the W.C. Handy Blues & Bar­be­cue Fes­ti­val in Hen­der­son, Ky., in 2014. He some­times played the har­mon­ica so hard that the in­stru­ment would fall apart in his hands.

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