“If I don’t feel it, I can’t play it.” — James Cotton

Blues-harmonica legend James Cotton was born on this day in 1935 on a cotton plantation. He was a working musician by the time he was 10 years old. 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 on, he formed his own band, and toured as a solo act for 60-plus years. He played with everyone.

In the early 1950s, he – like so many others – gravitated to Memphis, to Sun Records specifically, the space Sam Phillips had created to record blues and gospel music. 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. (One arm of the business was the money-making arm, which paid the bills, Phillips recording weddings and stuff like that.) Phillips was on a mission. He wanted these musicians and this music 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 was as eloquent as human speech. Maybe more eloquent. Because I’ve listened to a lot of people talk, and they never sound like THIS.

He died in 2017. Here’s a full obituary, with more information.

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