Making his harp sing

Renowned harmonica player James Cotton has performed with a host of blues and rock greats.

James Cotton 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
James Cotton 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
James Cotton certainly got an early start to his working life. The now 73-year-old blues harmonica player, who will play six shows with his five-piece band in Tel Aviv and Herzliya between September 4 and 6, was the youngest of eight children, who grew up working alongside their parents in cotton fields in Tunica, Mississippi. He didn't grow up to be a farmhand although, in a way, a farmyard creature provided something of a springboard for his professional development. "My mother used to play chicken and train sounds on her harmonica," Cotton explains in a telephone interview from his home in Texas. "For quite a while I thought they were the only two sounds the little instrument made." Then, one Christmas, Cotton Jr. was given a harmonica which cost the princely sum of 15 cents, and before long he had emulated his mother's albeit limited mastery on the instrument. Growing up in the Deep South, Cotton was surrounded by the sounds and vibes of numerous blues masters. But it was when he heard harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson on a radio show broadcast from just across the Mississippi River in Helena, Arkansas, that he realized he had a lot more to learn on his new instrument. "I discovered you could do more with a harp [nickname for a harmonica] than just make chicken and train sounds." From then on, when the 15-minute Williamson show came on, Cotton would press his ear up against the cheap family radio and avidly followed the master's playing and, in time, he learned most of Williamson's licks and numbers. Both Cottons' parents had passed away before he was nine years old. Shortly after that, an uncle took the boy to meet his hero, by which time Cotton had more to show Williamson than just chicken and train sounds. "I played Sonny Boy's theme song note for note. He just watched me," he says. A special bond quickly developed between the two harmonica players and, despite his tender years, Cotton soon landed the opening act slot for Williamson's numerous gigs at juke joints all over the South. "Actually, I was too young to go inside, so I'd open for Sonny Boy outside the joints," Cotton recalls. "Sometimes I'd make more money in tips than Sonny Boy made on his gig inside." After a while Williamson headed up north, and the teenage Cotton began playing and singing outside clubs on Memphis's famed Beale Street, enhancing his takings with some shoe shining on the side. It was when he met up with established blues star Howlin' Wolf that he finally made it inside a club. "I'd played outside The Top Hat joint in Black Fish, Arkansas, with Sonny Boy so the owner knew me. When Howlin' Wolf played there, the owner allowed me, even though I was still underage." Cotton eventually sat in with Howlin' Wolf, and the two went touring all over Missouri and Mississippi for a while. Cotton's next break came in 1954 when Muddy Waters, one of the iconic figures of the blues fraternity, introduced himself to Cotton at one of the young man's shows in Memphis. Cotton spent 12 years in Waters's band and, during that time, gained such a reputation that he landed a slot at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival. The highlight there was a scintillating solo on blues standard "Got My Mojo Working," Waters's biggest hit. By now Cotton was a star, as much for his colorful stage presence as for his playing. In the last four decades he has played with an impressive roster of giants from both inside and outside the strict blues fold. "I played with them all," says Cotton. "I played with black and white artists like Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, BB King, The Grateful Dead and Santana. Alexis Korner [British blues revivalist] stayed at my house for 10 days back in 1961." Unfortunately, Cotton is no longer able to sing, due to a bout with throat cancer in 1994 - but that didn't stop him from winning a Grammy Award two years later. Cotton says his inability to sing hasn't slowed him down. "Now I concentrate on the harmonica. I make my harp sing for me." The James Cotton Band will play two shows at Tel Aviv's Zappa Club on September 4 and 5, and two shows at the Zappa Herzliya Club on September 6.