Grammy Award-winning blues harmonica master James “Mr. Superharp” Cotton returns to Alligator Records with the new CD, Giant, set for a September 28 release. Giant is a ferocious blast of brash power blues from Cotton, one of the few bluesmen to have harmonicas literally explode from the pure force of his playing. Cotton, who in 2010 celebrates his 66th year as a professional musician (starting at the age of nine), has recorded 28 solo albums, including two highly-regarded releases for Alligator in the 1980s and the famed Harp Attack! with Junior Wells, Carey Bell and Billy Branch in 1990.
The New York Daily News calls Cotton “the greatest living blues harmonica player.” The New York Times adds, “Cotton helped define modern blues harmonica with his moaning, wrenching phrases and his train-whistle wails.” Rolling Stone says Cotton is “among the greats of all time. He blazes on harp with remarkable and brilliant virtuosity.”
Recorded by Stuart Sullivan at Wire Recording in Austin, Texas, Giant features 12 tracks, including four new Cotton originals and co-writes, alongside songs made famous by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Ivory Joe Hunter and others. Throughout his career, Cotton has always had great bands, and the players on Giant are no exception. With guitarists/vocalists Slam Allen and Tom Holland, bassist Noel Neal (Ronnie James Weber on one song) and drummer Kenny Neal, Jr., Giant is not just a reminder of Cotton’s legendary status, it is a remarkably vibrant and hard-hitting album made by one of the true blues masters.
Between his larger-than-life personality, his huge, boogie-blast-furnace sound and his massive frame, James Cotton is a blues giant in every respect. Born in Tunica, Mississippi on July 1, 1935, Cotton actually grew up on a cotton plantation. The youngest of eight brothers and sisters, he received a fifteen-cent harmonica for Christmas as a very small boy and mastered it almost immediately. He began listening to Sonny Boy Williamson’s King Biscuit Time on KFFA from Helena, Arkansas and learned to imitate the older bluesman note for note. In 1944, after both of his parents had passed away, Cotton’s uncle recognized the nine-year-old boy’s talent and took him to Helena to meet his hero. Upon first meeting Sonny Boy, Cotton began playing the elder blueman’s famous licks. Sonny Boy was amazed. The two became close, and Cotton spent many nights traveling with Williamson to juke joints all over the area. Cotton, being too young to enter the clubs, often played for tips outside.
When Williamson left for Milwaukee in 1950, Cotton, now 15, took over Sonny Boy’s band. While this arrangement didn’t last beyond a few gigs, Cotton got a taste of band leading. He met Howlin’ Wolf and soon began touring with him all over the South. Cotton learned all about making it on the road from Wolf, and, though only a teenager, he was determined to succeed. By 1952 his reputation was growing, particularly in West Memphis. He worked often in local juke joints and clubs and, along with drummer Willie Nix, hosted a variety of local radio shows.
In 1953, the teenage Cotton received word that Sun Records owner Sam Phillips wanted to record him. He cut a total of four sides in 1953-54, including the classic Cotton Crop Blues. In 1954, Muddy Waters came through Memphis without Junior Wells, his harp player at the time. Waters was well aware of Cotton’s growing reputation and asked him to join his band. Cotton headed to Chicago with Waters, staying by his side for the next 12 years, becoming Muddy’s trusted confidante and the leader of his backing band.
The first few years Cotton was with Waters, Chess Records still insisted on having Little Walter record with Muddy. But that changed beginning in 1958, when Cotton joined Waters in the studio, recording on many of Muddy’s classics sides, including She’s 19 Years Old and Close To You. Cotton convinced Waters to perform and record Got My Mojo Working, and can be heard playing on the definitive version of the song on Waters’ 1960 Chess LP, Live At Newport.
By 1966, Cotton was ready to head out on his own. He first recorded sides under his own name for the Chicago/The Blues/Today! series on Vanguard, and along with Otis Spann, cut The Blues Never Die for Prestige. He made his first solo albums – one for Vanguard and three for Verve – in the late 1960s, with bands featuring outstanding musicians, including famed guitarist Luther Tucker and master drummers Sam Lay and Francis Clay. With his gale-force sound and fearless boogie band (later featuring Matt “Guitar” Murphy), it wasn’t long before he was adopted by the burgeoning hippie audience as one of their own. Cotton shared stages with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Steve Miller, Freddie King, B.B. King and many others. In 1969 he appeared on Hugh Hefner’s groundbreaking Playboy After Dark syndicated television program.
Cotton was well-known as one of the hardest-touring and most popular blues artists of the 1970s. His acrobatic showmanship (he often did somersaults on stage) and full-throttle blues kept him in demand at concert halls all over the country; he played the Fillmore East in New York, the Fillmore West in San Francisco and every major rock venue in between. During the decade, he cut an album for Capitol and three for Buddah. He rejoined his old boss Muddy Waters for the series of Muddy albums produced by Johnny Winter, starting with Hard Again in 1977. Cotton also guested on recordings by Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, John Lee Hooker and many others. He was joined on his own albums by stars like Todd Rundgren, Steve Miller and Johnny Winter.
Cotton joined Alligator Records in 1984, releasing High Compression and Live From Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself!!! (which earned him his very first Grammy nomination). In 1990 he joined fellow harp masters Junior Wells, Carey Bell and Billy Branch for the all-star release Harp Attack!. He won a Grammy Award in 1996 for his Verve album, Deep In The Blues.
During the 2000s Cotton has continued recording and touring relentlessly, playing all over the world. He was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2006. The San Francisco Examiner says, “James Cotton is an inimitable blues-harmonica legend. His wailing harmonica blows them away. His jazzy improvisations on the blues are full of fun and good humor. The blues don’t get much better.”
Today Cotton, while turning over the singing duties to his road band, still blows the reeds right out of his harp. With Giant, James Cotton’s aggressive, powerful blues harmonica playing is a true force of nature. In June 2010 Cotton was honored at New York’s Lincoln Center, where his friends Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and others paid tribute in an all-star concert. There James Cotton played in front of yet another sold-out venue, with fans all cheering the man known worldwide as “Mr. Superharp,” an undisputed giant of the blues.