Thursday, March 23, 2017

RIP Superharp; An Appreciation of James Cotton

   Last Thursday I was working on this week’s newsletter on my computer at about 10 AM in the morning. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an e-mail pop into my Inbox.  It read, “RIP, James Cotton.” Immediately I stopped working on the newsletter, clicked on the e-mail, and discovered that indeed James Cotton had died of pneumonia in Austin, TX at age 81. Wow! I was shook up and I went through a sea of emotions and memories that I am still experiencing and processing as I sit here listening to a James Cotton playlist covering all different phases of his career. All of Cotton was there coming out of my computer-his amazing 70 year career of inventive and powerful playing, his joyous singing and his sense of straight out fun. From his earliest recordings with Sun Records in the mid-1950’s through his time with Muddy Waters and through his time leading various bands under his own name, James was always “there”! He never just phoned it in. I saw him live more times than any other of my blues heroes, and he always gave it his all. Even in recent times, when his voice was fading and he couldn’t sing, his harp playing seemed somehow better and stronger. And man, could he rock a crowd! Being at a James Cotton performance was to be a member of an instant party. He was high energy, open, and inviting, and watching him you could tell this was a man who flat out loved what he was doing.  It was a blessing and joy to watch the man work.

     Looking back, it amazed me to realize just how long I had been listening to Cotton, trying to copy his riffs, trying to figure out how to get that liquid tone, and using him as a role model for how to be on stage. For more than half a century he has been my greatest influence, both as a harp player and a performer. While it was seeing Howling’ Wolf on TV which got me playing harp, it was James who most affected my playing and performing. So much about him just drew me in and inspired me. In the mid-1960’ I spent a lot of time at the Listening Room in the Main Library absorbing as much electric  blues as I could. I had just started playing harmonica, and of course Little Walter caught me first on those legendary recordings with Muddy Waters. But I also heard James on Vol. 2 of Sam Charters’ Vanguard collection, Chicago the Blues Today. His Cotton Crop Blues, Rocket 88, and West Helena Blues blew me away with his strong singing, raucous and intense harp playing, and Otis Spann’s unbelievable piano fills. That was one of the first LP’s I ever purchased, and I wore it out quickly. I also got his first Verve LP, Pure Cotton, and I was hooked for life. I was a Cotton fanatic; I listened to him over and over. Fortunately for me his band was playing Philly at the 2nd Fret one weekend in1968, and I was there every night. I was just a young teenage kid, and I went upstairs to the dressing room, knocked on the door and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Cotton; I am learning to play harmonica; I was wondering if you could show me some things on the harp.”  To my surprise, he invited me in, sat me down, and he showed me some things about breathing, using the tongue and more. What a weekend that was! I got to sit up front at the Fret for three days, talk with the band after each show, learn some licks from James, and see what is was like to be in a band-a group of musicians all working together to produce a singular sound and a show. That weekend influenced me to this very day.

    That was a great band that I heard that weekend with Sam Lay on drums, the great Albert Giaguinto on keys, Luther Tucker on guitar and Robert Anderson on bass. His bands changed personnel over the years, really clicking when the incredible Matt Murphy became his guitarist, and Charles Calmese and Kenny Johnson became his long-time rhythm section. But no matter who he had in his band when I saw him, James gave me some of the greatest live music experiences I have ever had. I got to see him once more at the Fret, twice at the Fillmore in NYC, at several blues, jazz and folk festivals, and twice on tour as part of the Muddy Waters/Jonny Winter tour following Muddy’s Grammy winning 1977 Hard Again lp. And when I was with the John Cadillac Band in the late 1970’s we got to open up for James at the old Starrs club at 3rd and Bainbridge.  Playing and looking out and seeing James standing at the bar filled me with both pride and fear. And when we finished our set and he came and told us we’d had a good one, I felt as if I was finally really a “musician”. James Cotton had seen and he had approved.

   The last four times I saw James he was not doing a lot of singing. He had developed throat cancer and he gradually stopped singing altogether. But his band was strong, tight, high energy as usual, and his harp playing was sounding even better than it had during the 1980’s and 1990’s. I last saw him at TLA doing an XPN show. He was seated in a chair the whole night, but nobody in the audience was still. People danced, shouted, laughed, sang along, smiled, and basked in the wonder of his playing and his band’s performance. I am glad that is my last memory of seeing James-his strong playing, his still playful and powerful music making, and him still being able to untie a crowd of different ages and bring them great joy.  I owe him so much. Hats off to you, Superharp. You were and remain one of the all time greats. Thank you for so much for all you taught me, gave and still give to me. It has been an honor to have heard and seen you play.
(Here are some of my favorite James Cottons recordings and appearances:
  Back to Old St Louis -
The Creeper-
Sweet Home Chicago and more: 
James Cotton website