RIP to blues-harmonica legend James Cotton. He was born in 1935 on a cotton plantation, and was a working musician early (10, 11 years old early). He toured with Howlin’ Wolf. Eventually he hooked up with Muddy Waters and toured with him for years, his harmonica solos an integral part of the songs. Later in life, he formed his own band, and toured as a solo act for 60 years or something like that. He played with everyone.
In the early 1950s, he – like everybody else in the Delta area (and beyond, too, I suppose) – gravitated to Sun Records in Memphis, to the space Sam Phillips had created to record the blues and gospel music he loved so much. Cotton’s Sun tracks are incredible, with that unmistakeable Sun sound, a sound you would recognize in a blind sample. There’s a raw-ness to the Sun stuff, because even though you had to pay to record there, it wasn’t really a commercial enterprise. At least not at the start. (Phillips had one arm of the business recording weddings and stuff like that: that was the money-making arm.) Phillips was on a mission. He wanted these geniuses to be HEARD.
Of all of James Cotton’s Sun stuff, I love “Cotton Crop Blues” the best, a 1954 recording, with a grinding slightly distorted and totally modern-sounding electric guitar solo by Pat Hare.
Here’s a live clip from a Muddy Waters show from 1966. A performance of “Got My Mojo Workin’,” James Cotton harmonica solo.
And here, James Cotton, alone, slows it all way, way, WAY down. Center stage. His harmonica TALKED. As eloquently as human speech. Maybe more eloquent. Because I’ve listened to a lot of people talk, and they never sound like THIS.