James Cotton (born July 1, 1935) is an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter, who has performed and recorded with many of the great blues artists of his time as well as with his own band. Although he played drums early in his career, Cotton is famous for his work on the harmonica. Cotton began his professional career playing the blues harp in Howlin' Wolf's band in the early 1950s. In 1965 he formed the Jimmy Cotton Blues Quartet, utilizing Otis Spann on piano to record between gigs with Muddy Waters' band. In the 1970s, Cotton played harmonica on Muddy Waters' Grammy Award winning 1977 album Hard Again, produced by Johnny Winter.
Born in Tunica, Mississippi, United States, Cotton became interested in music when he first heard Sonny Boy Williamson II on the radio. He left home with his uncle and moved to West Helena, Arkansas, finding Williamson there. For many years Cotton claimed that he told Williamson that he was an orphan, and that Williamson took him in and raised him; a story he admitted in recent years is not true. Williamson did however mentor Cotton during his early years. When Williamson left the south to live with his estranged wife in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he left his band in Cotton's hands. Cotton was quoted as saying, "He just gave it to me. But I couldn't hold it together 'cause I was too young and crazy in those days an' everybody in the band was grown men, so much older than me."
Although he played drums early in his career, Cotton is famous for his work on the harmonica. Cotton began his professional career playing the blues harp in Howlin' Wolf's band in the early 1950s. He made his first recordings as a solo artist for the Sun Records label in Memphis, Tennessee in 1953. In 1954, he recorded an electric blues record "Cotton Crop Blues" which featured a heavily distorted power chord-driven electric guitar solo by Pat Hare. Cotton began to work with the Muddy Waters Band around 1955. He performed songs such as "Got My Mojo Working" and "She's Nineteen Years Old", although he did not appear on the original recordings; long-time Muddy Waters harmonica player Little Walter was utilized on most of Muddy's recording sessions in the 1950s. Cotton's first recording session with Waters took place in June 1957, and he would alternate with Little Walter on Muddy's recording sessions until the end of the decade, and thereafter until he left to form his own band.
In 1965 he formed the Jimmy Cotton Blues Quartet, utilizing Otis Spann on piano to record between gigs with Muddy Waters' band. Their performances were captured by producer Samuel Charters on volume two of the Vanguard recording Chicago/The Blues/Today!. After leaving Muddy's band in 1966, Cotton toured with Janis Joplin while pursuing a solo career. He formed the James Cotton Blues Band in 1967. They mainly performed their own arrangements of popular blues and R&B material from the 1950s and 1960s. Two albums were recorded live in Montreal that year. In the 1960s, Cotton formed a blues band in the tradition of Bobby Bland. After Bland's death, his son told news media that Bland had recently discovered that James Cotton was his half-brother. Four tracks that featured the big band horn sound and traditional songs were captured on the album Two Sides of the Blue.
In the 1970s, Cotton recorded several albums with Buddah Records. Cotton played harmonica on Muddy Waters' Grammy Award winning 1977 album Hard Again, produced by Johnny Winter. The James Cotton Blues Band received a Grammy nomination in 1984 for Live From Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself!, and a second for his 1987 release, Take Me Back. He finally was awarded a Grammy for Deep in the Blues in 1996 for Best Traditional Blues Album. Cotton appeared on the cover of Living Blues magazine in 1987 in the July/August issue (#76). He was featured in the same publication's 40th anniversary issue, released in 2010 in August/September.
Cotton battled throat cancer in the mid-1990s, and his last recorded vocal performance was on 2000's Fire Down Under the Hill, but he continued to tour, utilizing singers or his backing band members as vocalists. Cotton's studio album, Giant, was released on Alligator Records in late September 2010. His latest album, also on Alligator Records, "Cotton Mouth Man" was released on May 7, 2013. It includes guest appearances by Gregg Allman, Joe Bonamassa, Ruthie Foster, Delbert McClinton, Warren Haynes, Keb Mo, Chuck Leavell and Colin Linden. On March 10, 2008, Cotton and Ben Harper inducted Little Walter into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They performed "Juke" and "My Babe" together at the induction ceremony which was broadcast nationwide on VH1 Classic. On August 30, 2010, Cotton was the special guest on Larry Monroe's farewell broadcast of Blue Monday which he hosted on KUT in Austin, Texas for nearly 30 years. Cotton appears recently on the debut CD by The Dr. Izzy Band, "Blind & Blues Bound". Released in June, 2013, he plays some ferocious harp on the opening song "Matches Don't Burn Memories".
Cotton has worked with many prominent artists including:
- Chicago/The Blues/Today! vol. 2
- 1968: Cut You Loose! (Vanguard)
- 1968: Cotton in Your Ears (Verve)
- 1970: Taking Care of Business (Capitol)
- 1974: 100% Cotton (Buddah; w/ Matt "Guitar" Murphy)
- 1976: Live & On the Move (Buddah)
- 1978: High Energy (Buddah)
- 1984: High Compression (Alligator)
- 1986: Live from Chicago Mr. Superharp Himself (Alligator)
- 1987: Take Me Back (Blind Pig; reissued on vinyl 2009)
- 1988: Live at Antone's (Antone's)
- 1990: Harp Attack! (Alligator; w/ Carey Bell, Junior Wells, and Billy Branch)
- 1991: Mighty Long Time (Antone's)
- 1994: 3 Harp Boogie (Tomato)
- 1994: Living the Blues (Verve)
- 1995: Two Sides of the Blues
- 1996: Deep in the Blues (Verve)
- 1998: Seems Like Yesterday (Justin Time)
- 1998: Late Night Blues: Live at the Penelope Café 1967 (Justin Time)
- 1999: Best of the Vanguard Years (Vanguard)
- 1999: Superharps (Telarc; w/ Charlie Musselwhite, Sugar Ray Norcia, and Billy Branch)
- 2000: Fire Down Under the Hill (Telarc)
- 2002: 35th Anniversary Jam (Telarc)
- 2004: Baby, Don't You Tear My Clothes (Telarc)
- 2007: Breakin' it Up, Breakin' it Down (Legacy; with Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter)
- 2010: Giant (Alligator)
- 2013: Cotton Mouth Man (Alligator)
- 2013: Blind and Blues Bound (Black Chow Records) The Dr. Izzy Band, song "Matches Don't Burn Memories"
- Chicago Blues Festival