By Jody Callahan
When James Cotton was still a youngster, he’d come in after picking cotton all day under the broiling Mississippi sun to a payment of just 3 dollars.
One day, he pulled out his harmonica on the porch where the cotton money was doled out and started playing. A half-hour later, Mr. Cotton told The Commercial Appeal in an interview in 1999, he had $36 in tips in his pocket.
That was an eye-opening experience for the young boy, and it didn’t take him long to see that music was his future. Thanks to his talent and a chance meeting with a blues legend, a then 9-year-old Cotton embarked on a musical career that would see him honored and loved the world over.
“James Cotton was probably among the half-dozen most important blues harmonica players.
He was much imitated, never duplicated. His sound and his style became archetypes. He carried the sound of the amplified harmonica into the rock world more effectively than anybody else,” said Bruce Iglauer, president and founder of Alligator Records, where Mr. Cotton recorded.
Mr. Cotton, who was born in Tunica and lived in Memphis for several years, died Thursday after a long illness in Austin, Texas, where he lived. “Mr. Superharp,” as he was called, was 81.
“We’re sort of all in shock. We knew he hadn’t been well,” said Barbara Newman, president of the Memphis-based Blues Foundation. “If you saw the look on my staff members’ faces when I went in and told them that he’d passed away, there was this deep quiet sadness. He touched people with his music, his harmonica.”
During a career that spanned more than 60 years, Mr. Cotton recorded nearly 30 solo records while appearing on recordings for numerous other musicians. He played with such blues legends as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. He won one Grammy and numerous blues awards, culminating with his induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.
“There’s a lot of great harmonica players, and a lot of them came from this area,” said Jay Sieleman, former head of the Blues Foundation. “But without putting too fine a point on it, he would be in the top five or top 10 harmonica players of all time. That’s pretty elite company.”
Born in 1935, Mr. Cotton musical journey began when his mother bought him a 15-cent harmonica for Christmas a few years later, he told the newspaper in that 1999 interview. He listened and imitated his mother as she blew folk songs on the harp. But sometime around the age of 7, Mr. Cotton’s heard Williamson play on a radio show.
“I just heard about 30 seconds of harmonica but I realized that it was harmonica. I said, `My God, what is that? What is he doing with it?’” Mr. Cotton said.
Two years later, Mr. Cotton met Williamson in an encounter that would launch his professional career.
“His parents had died, and his uncle took him to hear Sonny Boy Williamson who was playing on the radio in West Helena (Arkansas),” Iglauer said. “When Sonny Boy heard Cotton’s ability to imitate him at such an age, he took him on as sort of his apprentice. Cotton would open shows for Sonny Boy playing by himself, and often playing on the streets for tips. He was making money playing harmonica at 9.”
From there, Mr. Cotton became close to Muddy Waters, spending 12 years as part of his band. He recorded at Sun Records before eventually moving to Chicago. He moved back to Memphis in 1994, then departed for Austin some years ago. In 1966, he founded The James Cotton Band, the outfit that took him to dozens of countries for thousands of shows, something a former cotton picker from the Mississippi Delta still found hard to believe decades later.
“I never thought,” Mr. Cotton told a reporter in 1998, “that this harmonica would take me around the world.”