Volume III, Issue II Summer 2004

A living history of the blues
James Cotton on Sonny Boy Williamson II, Muddy Waters and the future of the blues

The term "legend" gets tossed around pretty lightly these days. It seems at times that anyone who's played more than a decade or so and had a few albums is all of a sudden a legend.

James Cotton So rather than call blues harmonica player James Cotton a "legend," let's just lay out some of his career highlights:

  • Went to live with Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) as a child, learning harmonica from a man who played with Robert Johnson and Elmore James.
  • Cut his first records at Sam Phillips' Sun Records in the early 1950s, trading studio time with the likes of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, Ike Turner and Carl Perkins.
  • Joined Muddy Waters' band in 1955, replacing Junior Wells.

And that's just before he turned 30.

In the 1960s, Cotton cut out from Waters to start a solo career that's lasted four decades now.

He'll be 79 on July 1, and in a telephone interview, Cotton allowed that he's letting himself slow down a bit on the work front.

"I eased up a little bit. I'm still working, but when I get a chance to relax a little bit, I do that."

Not that he's relaxing too much – after all, he has a brand-new album out on the Telarc label, "Baby, Don't You Tear My Clothes," that he's touring in support of.

As he has since throat cancer robbed him of his singing a decade ago, Cotton employs guest vocalists on the new album.

Ask him if he misses singing, and it's about the only time you don't hear a smile coming through Cotton's voice.

"Yeah, I really do," he says, a bit sadly, before quickly brightening: "But I'm glad I'm still here. ... still cancer-free, and still able to play the harmonica."

In fact, Cotton made the point that not being able to sing has forced him to concentrate on his already formidable harmonica playing – "I think it makes it better."

Which is saying something, considering Cotton's history. And given the history he did live through, it's worth revisiting with him.

Of his association with Williamson, Cotton said he was living with an uncle at the time. "I made $3 a day working on the farm with the rest of the men at 7 years of age." He used some of his earnings to buy himself a harmonica, and would listen to Williamson's broadcasts on the "King Biscuit Hour" out of KFFA in Helena, Ark. After making more money in one night of playing music than in a week on the farm, Cotton said his uncle told him that farming was not his future.

So they drove to Helena to meet Williamson, his uncle promising Williamson that he would cover all of the boy's expenses if he would let the child live with him and learn music from him.

Williamson remains famous 39 years after his death for his cantankerous temper, and while Cotton said he witnessed some of the things that led to that reputation, Williamson was always good and fair to him.

But true to form, Williamson – of whom almost nothing is known of his childhood – wouldn't talk about himself with the young Cotton. "He didn't like to talk about it much. He was more like the black sheep of the family; he did things on his own. Kinda raised himself, you know."

His relationship with Waters was more problematic. While Cotton was in Waters' regular band and toured with him, Little Walter played harmonica on most of Waters' recordings – and Waters insisted Cotton copy Little Walter's solos note for note.

James Cotton "Muddy was a strange person. A very good man, but he loved his music. And when he made records, he appreciated the people who came out to hear him so much, he wanted played just what they heard on that record. And I could understand that, but it was hard to do."

In between Williamson and Waters were his years in Memphis, hustling gigs and hanging out at Sun Studios hoping for an invitation to record. Histories of Sun have documented its role as a social scene for area musicians of all stripes and colors, and Cotton said he remembers hanging out with all the names mentioned above.

But did those young men know they were changing the face of popular music?

"We weren't thinking about history," he laughed. "We were just trying to make money. Just making a record. Then the record came out, and we started trying to get gigs from the radio. Folks would hear the record on the radio, and then you might get a gig from that."

Cotton now lives in Austin, Texas, where he was a mainstay at Cliff Antone's namesake blues club in the 1980s. But Cotton says he only plays an occasional gig at Antone's now. In setting up the interview, Cotton's manager said that the blues scene has slowed a bit from the boom of the 1980s and early '90s; that even Antone's now books rock and pop bands (which is a bit like learning that country-western landmark Gilley's is now booking jazz – which it is).

But if gigs are no longer as plentiful as they once were, Cotton doesn't see the blues ever going away completely.

"The blues is here to stay. I think it's here to stay because as long as there are people, there will always be blues. Folks lose their jobs, and things like that, and that is the blues."

As for the form the blues takes, Cotton says he enjoys the new influences the younger generations have brought.

"I guess that's what the younger generation calls the blues. As for me, I'm with the old 12-bar blues. That's something I was raised with.

"A lot of the new music, I like, but I could never play it. But I like it."

As mentioned earlier, Cotton admits to slowing down a bit. Has he considered retirement?

"I got nothing else to do; this is my job. I play harmonica.

"I'm gonna be here until I die."

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