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Cotton's been filling his lungs with smoky club air almost his entire life, performing beside everyone from Howlin' Wolf to Paul Butterfield. It was Wolf who first brought him into Sun Studios (that's Cotton's harp on "Moanin' at Midnight" and "How Many More Years"), but it was Little Junior Parker, also a Sun artist, who was indirectly responsible for getting Sam Phillips to record him: "I wrote a song called 'Feeling Good' and Junior Parker stole the song out from under me. Phillips noted this was my song, and I seen him come out with it. So to make me feel better, he offered for me to do some records."
The young harmonica wizard's reputation spread, and it wasn't long before the man who was to be his employer for twelve years came looking for him. "I was down here [West Memphis] and he was living in Chicago, so I had never seen him before," he says of his first meeting with Muddy Waters. "But I heard the music, the records and stuff." When Waters approached him with the offer of a job, Cotton thought he was an impostor. "He says, 'I'm Muddy Waters.'
And I say, 'Well, I'm Jesus Christ!'" Cotton chuckles at the memory.
However, filling the harp slot in Muddy's band was a formidable task, following hard on the heels of harpsters Junior Wells and George "Harmonica" Smith. But the largest shadow thrown was that of Little Walter Jacobs, perhaps the most popular harmonica man ever, who had left Waters to form his own band. Muddy's sound was so dependent on Little Walter that he insisted Cotton play just the way Walter did. "I kinda learned to play twice," Cotton says with no trace of malice. "I had to learn all that kind of stuff [Little Walter's style] before I could keep the job."
One of Cotton's greatest contributions to the Muddy Waters canon is a song that will forever be identified with Muddy: "I Got My Mojo Working." Written by Ann Cole, "Mojo" was given its definitive reading at the Newport Festival in 1961, thanks largely to Cotton's rocket-fueled solo.
A rare respite for his vocal cords has brought him back to Memphis A where he's returned to live after years in Chicago A before he continues the tour that brings him to Miami tomorrow (Friday) night. "I don't gig here," he says of the town that boasts Beale Street. "I just come home to rest."
After enduring and being shaped by Jim Crow, Cotton doesn't take his reverse migration lightly. "Like everything else, it's modernized now," he says of the South. "And meanwhile, I'm back here," he laughs and pauses for a moment. "It was really rough out here. I guess the reason why I play the harmonica is because my mother and father couldn't afford to get me no guitar then. So they bought me a fifteen-cents harmonica. And I went up with that."
James Cotton performs at 10:00 p.m. tomorrow (Friday) at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave; 374-1198; and at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 11, at the Backroom, 16 E Atlantic Ave, Delray Beach; 407-243-9110. Admission to both shows is $15.