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.