World-renowned blues harmonica master James Cotton, whom Rolling Stone called, “One of the greats of all time, burning with brilliant virtuosity,” died on March 16, 2017 of pneumonia at St. David's Medical Center in Austin, Texas. He was 81. His overwhelmingly powerful harmonica playing was one of the iconic sounds of the blues. He toured worldwide for over 60 years.
James Henry Cotton, known as “Mr. Superharp,” recorded nearly 30 solo albums, winning one Grammy Award, six Living Blues Awards and 10 Blues Music Awards. He was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2006. The New York Daily News called him, “The greatest blues harmonica player of all time.” NPR Weekend Edition said, “Conjure up a list of all-time great blues harmonica players, and high up on it you'll see the name James Cotton.”
Born on a cotton plantation in Tunica, Mississippi on July 1, 1935, Cotton was a working musician by age nine. He learned harmonica directly from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), toured with Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf, and recorded for Sun Records in 1953 before spending 12 years touring and recording with Muddy Waters (starting at age 20). Cotton was featured on Muddy’s famous 1960 At Newport LP on Chess Records, including the iconic version of Got My Mojo Working, one of the classic recordings of Chicago Blues.
After his 1953 Sun sessions, Cotton didn’t record under his own name again until the mid-1960s, with tracks included in the groundbreaking Chicago/The Blues/Today! series of LPs on Vanguard. Along with Otis Spann, he cut The Blues Never Die! for Prestige.
In 1966 he formed The James Cotton Band, quickly earning a reputation as one of the most commanding and potent live blues performers in the world—a man who could literally suck the reeds out of his harmonica from the pure force of his playing. He made his initial solo albums, three for Verve and one for Vanguard, in the late 1960s. With bands featuring outstanding musicians including famed guitarists Luther Tucker, Matt “Guitar” Murphy and Hubert Sumlin, he quickly rose to the top of the blues and rock worlds. It wasn’t long before Cotton, with his gale-force sound and fearless boogie band, was adopted by the burgeoning hippie audience as one of their own. Cotton shared stages with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Santana, Steve Miller, Freddie King and many others.
Cotton’s blistering talent and full-throttle energy kept him in demand at concert halls all over the country. He played the Fillmore East in New York, the Fillmore West in San Francisco and every major rock and blues venue in between. During the 1970s, he cut three albums for Buddah and one for Capitol. He rejoined his old boss Muddy Waters for a series of Muddy albums produced by Johnny Winter, starting with Hard Again in 1977. Cotton also guested on recordings by Koko Taylor, Steve Miller, Memphis Slim, Hubert Sumlin and many others. He was joined on his own albums by stars like Todd Rundgren, Steve Miller, Johnny Winter, Dr. John, David Sanborn, Charlie Haden, Michael Bloomfield and Cissy Houston.
Cotton signed with Alligator Records in 1984, releasing two solo albums and the famed Harp Attack! with Junior Wells, Carey Bell and Billy Branch. He won a Grammy Award in 1996 for his Verve album, Deep In The Blues and recorded four albums for Telarc Records before returning to Alligator in 2010. His most recent recording was 2013’s Grammy-nominated Cotton Mouth Man.
In June 2010, Cotton was honored by New York’s Lincoln Center, where his friends Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and others paid tribute to him in an all-star concert. The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal honored Cotton with their 2015 B.B. King Award for his seven decades of contributions to the blues.
Throughout his entire career, Cotton’s blast-furnace harmonica sound and larger-than-life personality always remained a true force of nature, described by USA Today as “devastating and powerful…carrying the Chicago sound to the world.”
Cotton is survived by his wife, Jacklyn Hairston Cotton, daughters Teresa Hampton of Seattle, Washington, and Marshall Ann Cotton of Peoria, Illinois and son James Patrick Cotton of Chicago, Illinois, as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.