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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

James Cotton--An appreciation

James Cotton

James Cotton (photo: Arnie Goodman)

One of the few remaining founders of Chicago blues, harmonica ace James Cotton, died yesterday at 81.

Fellow Chicago harmonica blues legend Corky Siegel recalls first meeting Cotton in 1965 at the famous Chicago blues clubs Pepper's Lounge and Big John's, "and we've been connected from across the universe ever since."

"When I think of James I think of his song 'Good Time Charlie' and the lyrics 'The sky's the limit and everything is free,' 'feel good' and 'it's alright now.' If you listen to the recording, it stops abruptly: I loved James. Everyone loved James. He was our Good Time Charlie and he kept his promise and then he just stopped abruptly."

Siegel is hardly alone among contemporary blues harmonica players in proudly acknowledging their debt to Cotton, who hailed from Tunica, Miss., but became famous for playing harmonica in Chicago for the likes of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. But he cut his own sides for Sun Records in Memphis in the early 1950s, and formed his own band in 1965. He won the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album (Deep in the Blues) in 1996 and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.

"He was the first big-time harp player I met that was nice, supportive, fun, wild--and a friend for 40-plus years," says Mark Wenner, since 1972 vocalist/harmonica player for D.C.-based blues-roots band the Nighthawks. "If I listen to his work from the '60s I hear so much of what I am still trying to do. He rode himself really hard and put himself away wet all the time."

San Francisco blues bandleader Rick Estrin, who apprenticed in Chicago in the late '60s with the likes of Muddy Waters before returning home and finding fame fronting the Nightcats, likewise speaks reverently of Cotton.

"I have learned from and loved all the greats, all the men who created the template that I and so many others work from," says Estrin. "But somehow, there was more immediacy in the way Cotton's harp playing spoke to me."

Cotton's playing, continues Estrin, "was as down-home, lowdown expressive as you could get, and yet still, it somehow simultaneously had a fierce, modern urgency to it. I'll personally be ever grateful for his existence. Without exaggeration I literally can't imagine where or what I'd be right now if it weren't for James Cotton—but it probably wouldn't be anything good. Of all the guys I heard in my formative years, he was the one I saw the most and dug the hardest. I'd be a whole different player, or maybe not even a player at all if it weren't for James Cotton."

James Cotton with Muddy Waters on the blues classic "Got My Mojo Working"



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