By Craig Harris
James Cotton is a national treasure. One of the last links to the great bluesmen who transformed the blues of the Mississippi Delta and clubs of Chicago into an international phenomenon, the Tunica, Mississippi-born harmonica player remains, at 75, not only a tie to the past but one of the blues' most dynamic artists.
With the release of "Giant," his latest Grammy-nominated album (and 28th as a bandleader), Cotton not only celebrates his longevity, but also showcases his still continuing growth and evolution as a musician.
"With every CD, we try to do our best," Cotton said by telephone. "It can't be the same thing. It has to always be changing."
Cotton will perform at Infinity Music Hall and Bistro in Norfolk, Conn., on March 31 at 8 p.m.
The damage done to his vocal cords by throat cancer, in 1993, has prevented him from singing, or speaking beyond a barely-understandable whisper, for nearly two decades.
"He had to make a choice," Cotton's wife and manager, Jacklyn Hairston, injected. "He had a malignant tumor on one of his vocal cords. When they removed it, and gave him radiation, they told him that he would have damage to the other vocal cord. That's what radiation does. He said, 'Well, I have my wife. I'll be cancer-free and I'll have my harp.'"
The harmonica continues to provide Cotton with a clearly audible voice. Though his gutsy singing of blues classics such as "Rocket 88" or "Turn On Your Love Light," is missed, he's more than compensated for what he's lost as a vocalist with the increasingly rich tones of his harmonica.
"That's my speech," he said. "I don't sing anymore but the harmonica sings for me."
Since celebrating his recuperation with a Grammy-winning instrumental album ("Deep In The Blues") in 1996, Cotton has shared the spotlight with great blues vocalists. Guitarist Slam Allen, whose singing was featured on "Giant," was recently replaced by Dallas, Texas-born, and Somerville, Massachusetts-based, Darrel Nulisch.
"They've all been very good," Cotton said. "Darrel is a really good guy."
Hairston added, "Darrell and Cotton will do stuff by [Blues legend and Cotton's early mentor] Sonny Boy Williamson [Rice Miller] and it'll be a real knockout."
The presence of other singers allows Cotton to do what he does best focus on the dynamically rich tones that he can coax from his blues harp and respond to vocals with call-and-response melodies that expand the emotional depth of each tune.
Cotton's ability to accompany and enhance other singers was proven early in his career. Inspired by Williamson's radio show, "King Biscuit Time," at the age of 8, he convinced an uncle, following the death of his parents, to escort him to West Memphis, Ark., in search of his hero.
"My uncle told me what to say," Cotton recalled, who told Williamson that he was an orphan. "He was standing out of the way, listening. Sonny Boy was falling for it, but my uncle told him that he had told me to say that."
Nevertheless, Williamson took a liking to the youngster and, for the next six years, raised him almost like a son, providing solid training in the art of blues harp playing.
"There's quite a bit of Sonny Boy in my playing," Cotton said. "Every time, I pick up my harmonica, I think of Sonny Boy. I have to do something that's different. But, I think about him every time that I play."
With Williamson relocating to Milwaukee, Wis., reconciling with his estranged wife, in 1951, he left Cotton in charge of his band. Though the group soon disbanded, the experience proved pivotal when Cotton formed his own band a decade later.
Playing with Howlin' Wolf's Band, at the age of 14, Cotton cut his first solo tracks (including "Cotton Crop Blues") a year later. Hosting a 15-minute radio show for West Memphis-based KWEM, and playing in the West Memphis clubs at night, Cotton was driving a truck by day when he was sought out by influential bluesman, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfeld).
"Junior Wells had been playing harmonica [in Water's band] but something had happened between them. I don't know what it was. Junior left the band and went back to Chicago," Cotton explained.
"I was playing in this little café. I'd come home from work and go out to play. Muddy was there waiting on me. He walked up to me and said, 'I'm Muddy Waters.' I said, 'I'm Jesus Christ' because I didn't believe him," he continued.
The anchor of Waters' music for the next 12 years, Cotton's harmonica propelled such classic recordings as "She's Nineteen Years Old," "Close To You," and "Got My Mojo Working."
"We didn't make a lot of money but, we sure had a lot of fun," Cotton recalled.
Cotton's mid-70's reunion with Waters provided some of the blues most historic moments. Together with blues rocker Johnny Winter, they produced a Grammy-winning album, "Hard Again," in 1977, and embarked on an international tour that spawned a live album, "Breaking It Up, Breaking it Down," that was released 30 years later.
"I'm still doing it with Johnny Winter," Cotton said. "We played together in Japan. He's known for rock 'n' roll. But, to me, he's a bluesman. I love the way that he plays."
As he approaches the middle of his 70th decade, Cotton has no thoughts of slowing down. "I'm always thinking of the next album," he said. "I don't want to stand still."
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