ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 7, 2002
By Steve Newton
Throughout the classic 1960 blues album Muddy Waters at Newport—which fans of the late legend should note was recently released on CD in remastered form, with bonus studio tracks—a young James Cotton can be heard blowing some serious harp at the Newport Jazz Festival. At one point in the concert, just before Cotton takes off on a solo during “Baby, Please Don’t Go”, Waters hollers: “Look out, Sonny Boy!”
Forty-two years later, Cotton still remembers Waters’s encouraging shout-out to harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson, who took a nine-year-old Cotton in when he left home and taught him how to play. “It always made you feel like you were doin’ a good job,” says the harp player from his home in Austin, Texas.
Cotton spent 12 years with the Muddy Waters Band, from 1954 to ’66, but the fact that he had replaced Little Walter on harmonica didn’t make the first half of his tenure an easy ride. Waters always wanted him to perform Little Walter’s parts note for note, and Cotton wasn’t crazy about the idea.
“I knew that I would never be Little Walter,” he relates. “So I finally told him, I said, ‘You know, I can play what you want, but I’m not Little Walter.’ ” Cotton made that point clear on Muddy Waters at Newport when, during the definitive version of “I’ve Got My Mojo Working”, he broke free from the Waters-imposed restriction and displayed some original harp-blowing chops to the appreciative crowd.
Cotton formed his own band right after leaving the Waters camp and has kept it going ever since. This May will see the release on Cleveland’s Telarc Records of a 35th-anniversary tribute to Cotton, featuring songs he either wrote himself or is noted for playing on. In advance of the CD—which sports guest appearances by the likes of Jimmie Vaughan, Koko Taylor, Shemekia Copeland, Ronnie Hawkins, Maria Muldaur, Kim Wilson, Tab Benoit, and Kenny Neal—Cotton is embarking on a tour that brings him to the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (March 8).
During the ’70s, at the height of the James Cotton Band’s popularity, he would sometimes get booked at the historic local venue for up to four nights in a row. “We’ve been out 36 years this year,” he points out, “and we never do the same show twice.”
In 1994, Cotton had polyps removed from his vocal cords and underwent low-dose radiation treatment. Although he is reportedly cancer-free, Cotton doesn’t sing anymore—guitarists Rico McFarland and Steve Freund currently share the vocal duties—but he still blows a pretty mean harp.
Or, as the 66-year-old blues veteran modestly puts it, “I try.”