Bluesman James Cotton, who played with a long list of rock and blues greats along with recording over two dozen albums, died on Thursday (March 16) at St. David’s Medical Center in Austin, TX at the age of 81. He had been battling pneumonia.
Cotton first became interested in music after hearing Sonnyboy Williamson on the radio while living in his hometown of Tunica, MS. He was so enamoured with Williamson’s music that he moved with his uncle to West Helena, AK to track down the bluesman who took him under his wing and mentored Cotton.
Originally a drum player, Cotton eventually became known as one of blues’ finest harmonica players. In the early 50’s, he played with Howlin’ Wolf and, in 1953, cut his first solo records for Sun Records including his first single Cotton Cop Blues.
In 1955, James became a member of Muddy Waters’ band, alternating on recordings with Muddy’s other harmonica player, Little Walter.
Cotton finally broke out on his own in 1965 with the Jimmy Cotton Blues Quartet while still playing with Waters. That same year, he appeared on the Chris Barber EPs Chris Barber Presents Jimmy Cotton and Chris Barber Presents Jimmy Cotton 2.
A year later, he finally cut ties with Muddy Waters after eleven years to go solo full time and recorded the album The James Cotton Blues Band for Verve in 1967. After albums on Vanguard and Capitol, he signed with Buddah for a series of albums throughout the 70’s along with continuing to record with other artists including playing on Muddy Waters’ Grammy-winning album Hard Again.
In the 80’s, he moved to Alligator Records and, in the mid-90’s, was diagnosed with throat cancer from which he eventually recovered. Throughout his later years, he received numerous accolades including a Grammy for Traditional Blues Album (1996) for Deep in the Blues, ten Blues Music Awards and induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.
Among the artists with which Cotton recorded and/or played were the Grateful Dead, Gregg Allman, Janis Joplin, B.B. King, Keith Richards, Todd Rundgren, Otis Spann, Johnny Winter, Taj Mahal, Elvin Bishop and much more.
Cotton is survived by his wife, two daughters and a son along with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.