In Memoriam: James Cotton
It is with a heavy heart that we bring the news that blues harmonica great James Cotton has died today at the age of 81. Cotton was one of the great innovators of electric blues music, playing with extensively with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Freddie King and Otis Spann, throughout his career as well as fronting his own band. Cotton was born in Tunica, Mississippi in 1935 and was first inspired to pick up the harmonica after hearing the playing of the great Sonny Boy Williamson. Cotton swiftly developed his own style of ‘cross harp‘ playing, the finishing touch being applied when he went electric – adding a heavily amplified microphone that further deepened his already heavy harmonica sound.
He recorded extensively throughout his long career, appearing on some 130 different releases as either a sideman or leader. Cotton was an able singer, his thundering, soulful voice an almost perfect extension of his harmonica playing. Cotton ended up being something of a crossover artist, regularly playing along not-only fellow blues legends, but also rock luminaries including Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers Band, The Grateful Dead and others.
Though Cotton’s style originated with Sonny Boy Williamson he was influenced by the playing of several of his contemporaries as well. When you listen to Cotton play, you can hear bits and pieces of the likes of fellow harp players including similarly raw players like Howlin’ Wolf but also more jazz influenced players such as Little Walter. Cotton was very open to new musical ideas and the evolution of his technique over time reflects this. That said, his style was always his own, first and foremost. He influenced many players that came after him, including Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite and William Clarke.
While Cotton wrote and recorded a lot of blues songs, his signature tune remained his composition, “Cotton Crop Blues”. Cotton was a living legend. He will be missed.