James Cotton's voice has always been cottony. Whether pouring out his soul on a Jimmy Reed heartbreaker or wailing Wolflike, the bluesman sounds as if he has a mouthful of grits, a lungful of smoke, and a jones for some whiskey to wash it all down.
Unfortunately, the years haven't been kind to Cotton's rasp: Recent throat surgery has reduced it to a gruff shout, as evidenced on his new release Living the Blues. "The doctor said it might take a while for my voice to come back as strong as it was, but I'm still singin'," Cotton avows by phone from his home in Memphis last week. "It might not be as strong as it was, and I don't want to push it, 'cause I want to get back right."
As homespun and occasionally powerful as it once was, it's not his singing voice that will assure James Cotton a place in blues history. Rather it's the voice of his Marine Band Hohner harmonica, a voice he has said comes from deep within his belly, not from his tortured throat. It was that deep blue voice, evoking both Saturday night jukes and lonesome black nights, that earned him a spot beside Muddy Waters.
Like many other blues stars of the past A John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush A Cotton, who will be 60 years old in July, is enjoying a second wind careerwise. Labels such as Charisma-Pointblank and the British-based Silvertone have hit on a successful formula for reacquainting audiences with blues greats: Just roll tape and let the musicians do what they do best. Of course pairing these artists with a few rock stars (Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck) to hedge the bet doesn't hurt. Sterling production values and plenty of money for promotion complete the profitable mix.
After a 25-year absence from the Verve imprint, Cotton has reunited with the label, which released his first record as a bandleader in 1967. "They gave me a better deal, and it's a bigger company," Cotton offers as his rationale for choosing to go with Verve over other labels that were courting him. Under the guidance of executive producer Jean-Phillipe Allard, Verve-Gitanes (yes, the sissified cigareets), the blues arm of PolyGram, has developed some muscle. In addition to picking Cotton, they've also rostered Charles Brown, Jimmy Rogers, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
Cotton is more than pleased with the results at Verve. "It's up for a Grammy," he says of Living the Blues, which was nominated in the Best Traditional Blues Album category (it lost to Eric Clapton's From the Cradle). "So they doin' something somewhere. I don't know what they doin', but they must be doin' somethin'," he laughs with a gentle rumble. Cotton's manager, Thomas Heimdal, talks of plans with Disney for an educational center in Orlando where the harpblower, and jazz artists such as saxman Stanley Turrentine, will perform and then talk with children about the music. (Cotton professes to know nothing about it, but he says he thinks it's a great idea.)
Nods from the Grammy folks are nothing new A Cotton has notched several over the years. He remains humble, recalling that when he was a small boy practicing behind the barn at his parents' farm outside Tunica, Mississippi, he never dared dream he'd get as far as he has. "See, when I first heard the harp played, well, my mother played, like a train and stuff," he says. "And I thought that was all it was supposed to do. And then I heard Sonny Boy [Williamson] play on station KFFA one day. And he blew my mind. I loved the sound of the harmonica, 'cause I had one. And when I heard him play it, I said, 'What the hell is this?' And I was listening to it every day. And I started playing whatever he was playing, but I never thought I'd be doin' it for a living."
Recognizing the child's talent and potential (legend has it Cotton could make big money on tips alone while busking, which beat farm work by a mile), his uncle took the nine-year-old to Helena, Arkansas, to meet Sonny Boy himself. "It was a big city to me at that point," Cotton notes. "My town consisted of a service station, that's all." But he had plenty of pluck and was uncowed by city lights or the curmudgeonly old bluesman who came to adopt and apprentice him for six years. "He was a nice guy once you got to know him," Cotton says of Sonny Boy, "but he did have a quick temper."
He also had a thirst for whiskey. By most accounts drinking was practically a religion for Sonny Boy, who was known, affectionately and otherwise, as the Goat. Cotton absorbed some of the Goat's traits, and physically he's paid the price over time. One vice he's still trying to kick is cigarettes (although he unrepentantly bellows, "I'm still smokin' " on his new record's title track). "I'm down to one or two [cigarettes] a day," he claims. "When I eat or when I go into the clubs and I smell it, oh, man, that's hard!"
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."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
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.