James “Superharp” Cotton was one of the most influential postwar blues harmonica players. During his sixty-five-year career he recorded and performed with blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters, among others. He became a star in his own right as a bandleader in the 1970s and worked with blues-based rock and roll musicians such as Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and Carlos Santana.
Cotton was born on 1 July 1935 near Tunica. He first learned how to make his harmonica sound like a train and a cackling hen by imitating his mother’s playing on her harmonica. As a young boy, Cotton was inspired by Sonny Boy Williamson II’s harmonica playing, which he heard on the King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. By the time Cotton was nine, his uncle took him to Helena to meet Williamson, who was so impressed that he invited the boy to move into his home and study under him for the next six years.
In 1950 Cotton and Williamson moved north to West Memphis, Arkansas. He began playing shows with area musicians Joe Willie Wilkins and Willie Nix. In 1952, following in Williamson’s footsteps, Cotton received his own radio show on KWEM. As his reputation grew, Cotton met Howlin’ Wolf, who enlisted the teenager to sit in on gigs around the Memphis area as well as on early Wolf recordings with Sam Phillips at Sun Studio. Cotton recorded two singles at Sun, 1953’s “Straighten Up, Baby,” on which he played drums instead of harmonica, and “Cotton Crop Blues” the next year.
Cotton first met Muddy Waters later in 1954 while driving a gravel truck in West Memphis. Waters hired Cotton to replace harmonica player Junior Wells, who had abandoned Muddy’s band in midtour. After Cotton finished the tour, he moved to Chicago and rented a room in Waters’s house. While Cotton became a regular in Waters’s band at gigs, Chess Records insisted that Little Walter play on most of Waters’s recordings until 1958. Cotton’s first studio recording with Waters was “All Aboard.” The track called for two harmonicas, and Cotton provided the train sounds. Later that year, Cotton also played on recordings of “She’s Nineteen Years Old” and “Close to You.” Cotton also urged Waters to record what would become one of the bluesman’s signature tracks, “Got My Mojo Working,” and Cotton played on the tune’s definitive recording at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. Cotton stayed with Waters until 1966 and eventually became his bandleader. During the mid-1960s Cotton served as a bridge between blues musicians and the burgeoning folk community.
In 1966 the James Cotton Blues Band set out on its first tour. The first gig was recorded and released in 1998 as Late Night Blues on Justin Time Records. Cotton’s first full-length record was released in 1967 on Verve Records, and he soon recorded for Sam Charters on the Vanguard label’s Chicago/The Blues/Today series. At this time Cotton’s band included guitarist Luther Tucker and drummer Sam Lay. The James Cotton Blues Band released four more albums in the late 1960s and opened for Janis Joplin on two tours. In the 1970s Cotton’s profile rose as a crossover artist. He continued to play for both rock and blues audiences and signed a managing contract with Albert Grossman, who also managed Bob Dylan. In 1974 Cotton released 100% Cotton; subsequent records were produced by Todd Rundgren, Mike Bloomfield, and Allen Toussaint. Cotton was reunited with Waters on his 1977 comeback album, Hard Again, produced by Johnny Winter. The album won a Grammy, and Cotton joined Waters on a successful world tour.
Cotton was nominated for solo Grammy Awards for 1984’s Live from Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself, 1987’s Take Me Back, and 1988’s James Cotton Live. Recovering from a bout of throat cancer in 1994, Cotton won his first solo Grammy with 1996’s Deep in the Blues, released on Verve. During the late 1990s Cotton and his band toured the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and South America. He continued to record and released the Grammy-nominated Giant in 2010, Cotton Mouth Man (2013), and The Alligator Years (2014). Cotton died in March 2017.
- Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, eds., All Music Guide to the Blues: The Definitive Guide to the Blues (2003)
- James Cotton website, jamescottonsuperharp.com
- Robert Gordon, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters (2002)
- Edward Komara, ed., Encyclopedia of the Blues, vol. 1 (2006)
- Helen Doob Lazar, Living Blues (August 1987)
- Sandra Tooze, Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man (1997)