James Cotton, Giant Of The Blues Harmonica, Dies At 81

Mar 16, 2017
Originally published on March 18, 2017 12:08 pm

NPR's Scott Simon spoke to James Cotton in 2013. Hear an encore of their conversation at the audio link.

James Cotton, one of the foremost blues harmonica players of the 20th century, died Thursday of pneumonia while being treated at St. David's Medical Center in Austin, Texas. He was 81 years old.

A note from Cotton's label, Alligator Records, confirmed his passing.

The Grammy Award-winning Cotton was born July 1, 1935, on a Mississippi cotton plantation and began playing the harmonica at age 9. As a teenager, he was mentored by Sonny Boy Williamson II, toured with Howlin' Wolf and recorded sessions at the legendary Sun Records studio. Starting at the age of 20, Cotton spent 12 years on the road with Muddy Waters and was featured on Waters' records At Newport 1960.

Cotton formed The James Cotton Band in 1966, eventually drawing him into the orbit of the new era through collaborations with, among many others, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin.

His status cemented, Cotton's accolades began to pile up — a Grammy in 1996 for his album Deep In the Blues, a 2010 all-star tribute concert at New York's Lincoln Center, and the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal's 2015 B.B. King award.

Cotton is survived by his wife Jacklyn Hairston Cotton, daughters Teresa Hampton and Marshall Ann Cotton, and son James Patrick Cotton. He also leaves behind numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Cotton explained his life best, in an interview with NPR in 2013: "I guess I was born with the blues, and I don't know nothing else but the blues."

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James Cotton died this week at the age of 81. The great harmonica bluesman was one of the last of a generation of artists who've made their way up from the south and made their name in Chicago.

James Cotton played with Muddy Waters for a dozen years and later went on to form his own band. He would eventually enter the harmonica pantheon alongside Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson.


SIMON: We spoke with James Cotton in 2013 when his Grammy-nominated album "Cotton Mouth Man" came out. Keb' Mo', who joined our conversation, sang vocals for Mr. Cotton on that CD. By that time, throat cancer had captured his singing voice, but James Cotton's harmonica continued to wail.


JAMES COTTON: The voice is going, but the wind is still there.

SIMON: The voice is going, but the wind's still there?

COTTON: Yeah. The wind's still blowing.

SIMON: (Laughter) The wind's still blowing. When you listen to Keb' Mo', do you have a sense that he's kind of saying what you would?

COTTON: Yeah. I think so. I know so. Like, I can feel it.

KEB' MO': It was a very unique thing. I've guested on, like, records before and done things, you know? But this was really special because, you know, it was like I've heard James Cotton sing, and when he was singing, he was an amazing singer, you know?


COTTON: (Singing) You women have heard of jalopies. You heard noise they make. Well, let me introduce my new Rocket 88. Yeah, it's straight, just won't wait. Everybody likes my Rocket 88. Baby, we'll ride in style, moving all along...

KEB' MO': I will never be the vocalist that James Cotton, you know, was when he was singing, you know? But I did my best to really take on the task and honor it, you know?

COTTON: You did it.

KEB' MO': Oh, thank you. That there - that's a million dollars right there (laughter).

SIMON: Keb' Mo' and James Cotton, the great bluesman who died this week. He was 81 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES COTTON SONG, "ROCKET 88") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.