James Cotton, Blues Harmonica Legend, Dies at 81

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James Cotton

A name synonymous with blues harmonica, James Cotton was also a highly regarded singer and songwriter who first rose to prominence in the mid-’60s and remained active until the present decade. His résumé included dozens of albums, as well as collaborations or guest appearances (live or on record) blowing harp for the likes of B.B. King, Steve Miller, Janis Joplin, Santana, Keith Richards, Joe Bonamassa, Muddy Waters, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, Gregg Allman, Todd Rundgren and many others.

Cotton died of complications from pneumonia today (March 16) in Austin, Texas, according to breaking online reports. His death was confirmed by Alligator Records, one of the labels for which he recorded.  Cotton was 81. He battled throat cancer in the 1990s but continued to work until recently.

He was born James Henry Cotton July 1, 1935, in Tunica, Mississippi, and first took up the drums. But he so was infatuated with blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson that he moved into the artist’s home at age 9 to learn the instrument, and by the early 1950s Cotton was playing blues harp himself in the band of Chess Records great Howlin’ Wolf. Cotton made his first recordings for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in 1953, then moved to Chicago, where in 1955 he went to work for Waters, replacing Little Walter and becoming Waters’ bandleader for 12 years. (Cotton later played harmonica on Waters’ Grammy Award–winning 1977 album Hard Again, produced by Johnny Winter.)

In 1965, Cotton set out on his own, forming the Jimmy Cotton Quartet (featuring pianist Otis Spann). He first recorded under his own name, releasing The James Cotton Blues Band on Verve Records, in 1967; the album was produced by guitarist Mike Bloomfield and fellow Electric Flag member Nick Gravenites. He subsequently cut albums for Vanguard, Buddah Records (the excellent 100% Cotton for the latter) and Capitol in the ’60s and ’70s, then Alligator, Anton’s, Tomato and other labels in the 1980s. Later, there were sets for Telarc, Justin Time, Blind Pig and other labels. he made nearly 30 albums in all.

Cotton won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album for Deep in the Blues in 1996 and he was nominated for four others: Live from Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself!, on Alligator (1984), Take Me Back, on Blind Pig Records (1987), Giant (2010) and Cotton Mouth Man (2013), both made for Alligator; the latter included guest spots from Allman, Bonamassa, Keb Mo, Chuck Leavell and others.

In 2006, Cotton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

The young James Cotton

Watch James Cotton perform “Rocket 88”

And here are Cotton and Keith Richards rehearsing “Little Red Rooster” for a benefit concert for blues great Hubert Sumlin

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