Inerview with James Cotton: How a blues harp legend was made

James Cotton is a Grammy award-winning musician who learned to play harmonica from blues harp icon Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). He also played with Howlin’ Wolf and toured with Muddy Waters.

Like many good blues legends, the story of Cotton, as his friends call him, started in Mississippi with knee-high Cotton — a typical toddler enamored with his mother. She used to make train sounds and chicken sounds on her harmonica and her son fell in love with the instrument.

“It’s all about the sound. I liked it. I really liked it,” said Cotton.

When he was too young to work the fields, he sat at their edges entertaining others as they worked. And of course the notes they heard in the heat weren’t just the noodlings of a little boy. They were the notes of a blues master in the making.

Thanks to the radio Cotton had moved far beyond the pop-pop-pop! of chicken sounds his mother taught him. He learned everything he heard on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show.

Williamson had become so important to Cotton that when he lost both his parents by the age of 9, he headed to Williamson with the hopes of using his harmonica skills to win a place in his heart and a bed in his house.

It succeeded in doing both.

Williamson took the aspiring lit- tle blues man in. The two were inseparable for years. Williamson would take Cotton to gigs and let him play on the venues’ front porches while Williamson played for the drinking adults inside. Cotton said he often made more money out front than his caretaker and teacher made inside.

He continued to follow in Williamson’s footsteps and made a name for himself gigging around Memphis. In 1952, he even got his own radio show, just like the show he used to tune in to hear Williamson as a boy.

And if all of that weren’t enough, Cotton was only starting to get on a roll. Recording industry legend Sam Phillips was the first to record Cotton in 1953 before giving Elvis his big break in 1954. This was also the year that Muddy Waters would stroll across a crowded bar to introduce himself to Cotton and ask him to join his band.

“He said, ‘Hello, I’m Muddy Waters’ and I didn’t think he was Muddy Waters so he showed me,” Cotton said. “He played a couple of songs and the minute he opened his mouth, I said, ‘That’s him!’”

While in Waters’ touring band, Cotton suggested that Waters do “Got My Mojo Working,” which became one of Waters’ biggest songs.

In the late 1960s, Cotton parted from Waters to pursue his own fame. He opened for Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin, won multiple W. C. Handy Awards, and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

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About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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