In the world of true blues music, you call a person who plays harmonica a ‘harp’ player and few were greater than harp legend James Cotton. He was called ‘Mr. Superharp’ and has played with music legends such as Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, B.B King, Carlos Santana, and many others. Cotton died on Thursday in Austin, TX from complications of pneumonia, he was 81.
James Cotton was born on a Tunica, Mississippi, cotton farm, July 1, 1935. Instruments like the guitar, banjo and harmonica were frequently played by farm laborers as the main form of entertainment until radio came along. It was when listening to the famous radio program “King Biscuit Time” that he became hooked on harp and harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II. Cotton would later move in with Williamson at the age of 9 to take lessons from the master. By his teen years, he began performing with Sonny Boy and Howlin Wolf and soon was a studio session player for the iconic label, Sun Records. When he was 18 he cut his first single called “Straighten Up Baby,” and after its success followed up with “Cotton Crop Blues.”
He began touring with Muddy Waters and was the harp heard in many iconic blues songs like “Mannish Boy” and “Got My Mojo Working.” In 1966, he struck out on his own and formed the James Cotton Band and was part of the emerging blues-rock genre. Cotton performed with top acts from the 1960s that included Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Santana, Steve Miller and others.
He continued to be a force in blues and won a Grammy for “Best Traditional Blues Album” in 1997.His last Grammy-nominated album was in 2013 for Cotton Mouth Man. Cotton never slowed down in his older years and was still touring and performing on a regular basis. His unique sound and playing style will be missed, along with his vast knowledge of blues music in America. In total, Cotton recorded nearly 30 solo albums, winning one Grammy Award, six Living Blues Awards and 10 Blues Music Awards. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.