Born on July 1, 1935, in Tunica, MS; son of Hattie (a farm laborer) and Mose Cotton (a Baptist preacher and farm laborer). Addresses: Management--Tom Heimdal, 235 W. Eugenie St., Suite G10, Chicago, IL 60614, phone: (312) 943-8426, fax: (312) 943-7879. Booking--Day and Night Productions, 3001 Granite Road, Suite 2, Woodstock, MD 21163-1001, phone: (410) 521-6416, fax: (410) 521-6420, e-mail: Cotton Official Website:

A high-energy master of Southern blues harmonica and electric Chicago blues, James "Superharp" Cotton has maintained a career of sweaty, hard-blowing concerts on the instrument sometimes called the "Mississippi saxophone." "We're talking about the blues, loud and fast and getting down dirty, we're talking about James Cotton, a singer, stomper, and harp-player extraordinaire," a quotation in the New York Daily News on Cotton's official website states. Although throat cancer and subsequent radiation and laser surgery in 1994 reduced his vocal ability, and age demanded an end to onstage back flips, Cotton continues to coax powerful lungs into instrumental blues for appreciative fans with his raspy cry of "Boogie, boogie, boogie!"

The youngest of eight children of farm worker Hattie and laborer and Baptist preacher Mose Cotton, James, known to his friends as "Cotton," observed his mother playing "Freight Train Blues" and "The Cackle Hen" on the harmonica. Claiming on the Jazz Weekly website that "you got to have the blues when you play the blues," Cotton explained that he got his start imitating train whistles along the Mississippi River at his home in Tunica, located in a poor agrarian section of northwest Mississippi. Soaked in jazz in childhood from King Biscuit Time over KFFA radio in Helena, Arkansas, he studied the star, Rice "Sonny Boy" Williamson, and he entertained field workers on breaks from his job as waterboy. After his parents died when he was nine years old, Cotton outearned his uncle's two weeks' pay in the fields--$36--from one night's tips at juke joints, where he blew his harmonica only on Saturdays. The uncle thought it time to introduce his talented nephew to Williamson himself and took him to the KFFA station to set up a mentorship.

The uncle's plan worked: after meeting the young Cotton and hearing him play, Williamson decided to take Cotton under his wing. After moving in with Williamson in 1944, Cotton accepted him as a father surrogate and, while growing up and learning his trade on road tours, imitated Williamson's wailing grace. By age 15, Cotton was left to lead Williamson's band when the older musician departed for a reunion with his ex-wife in Milwaukee. In his biography at the James Cotton Superharp website, Cotton recalled, "I couldn't hold it together 'cause I was too young and crazy in those days." Until he was ready, he shined shoes on Memphis's Beale Street and played for tips.

Following a round of playing in Delta clubs and bars in his teens, Cotton allied with Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett at the Top Hat in Black Fish, Arkansas. West Memphis gigs with Howlin' Wolf, Joe Willie Wilkins, and Willie Nix preceded Cotton's 15-minute daily radio show in 1952 on KWEM-Memphis. While delivering ice by day and playing the Dinette Lounge on Friday evenings, Cotton achieved a reputation of his own in 1954 by impressing Muddy Waters with a pick-up rendition of "Cotton Crop Blues." At the Hippodrome on Beale Street, the home of the blues, Cotton launched a 12-year collaboration with Waters, replacing harp ace Junior Wells with power and precision. Describing his first gig with the great Muddy Waters, Cotton told Sound Waves Magazine, "You should have seen me, I was shakin'!"

At age 15, Cotton signed with Sam Phillips's Sun Records in Nashville, then in its infancy. After recording the singles "Straighten Up Baby" and "Cotton Crop Blues," he moved on to Chicago with Waters, who briefly replaced Cotton with his predecessor, Little Walter Jacobs. At age 23, Cotton backed Waters for "Close to You" and "She's Nineteen Years Old" and persuaded Waters to add to his repertoire the pungently sexy "Got My Mojo Working," which the two recorded live at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival and again for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) television gathering of blues greats in Toronto.

Late in 1966, Cotton wearied of imitating Little Walter and set out on his own, recording for Chess, Loma, Prestige, and Vanguard. To support his long, syncopated blows on the mouth harp, he developed a technique of circular breathing by inhaling through the nostrils while using his cheeks as bellows. He quickly developed rapport with his audiences, who jumped to their feet to holler and dance.

Cotton's live recording of "Seems Like Yesterday" and "Late Night Blues" at Montreal's New Penelope Club, which remained unreleased until 1998, proved his command of his instrument. He assembled a trio with guitarist Luther Tucker and drummer Sam Lay before cutting his first blues-rock LP in 1967 for Verve. He built a following while warming up rock audiences for Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Santana, and B. B. King at Fillmore auditoriums in New York and San Francisco. Other collaborations blended Cotton's unique sound with that of Elvin Bishop, Paul Butterfield, Steve Miller, and Johnny Winter.

In 1974, Cotton and Matt "Guitar" Murphy recorded 100% Cotton for Buddah, including Cotton's rendition of "Rocket 88." At the height of his abilities, he issued High Compression in 1984, a salute to Chicago blues. He followed with Harp Attack! in 1990, with support from Junior Wells, Carey Bell, and Billy Branch and featuring "Black Night." In 1988, he blew harp live for an Antone Records original that matched him with Murphy and Tucker and, three years later, recorded Mighty Long Time in 1991, a collector's classic. After he recorded Living the Blues in 1994, which earned a nomination for a Grammy Award, a permanently grainy throat spelled the end of his vocals, but not of his vigorous dance improvs and soulful blues.

Cotton's harping has energized recordings by Blue Jug, Charlie Bubeck, Glen Campbell, City Streets, Billy Ray Cyrus, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Ronnie Earl, and Ronnie Hawkins. The best of blues performers--Joe T. Cook, Joe Coltrane, Len Rainey, Otis Spann--have recorded Cotton's originals. In the 1990s, a well-deserved collection of honors began to roll in, including induction into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian Institution. In 1995, Verve's compilation Best of the Verve Years featured Cotton performing "Feelin' Good," "Creeper," "Knock on Wood," and "Fallin' Rain." The next year, Deep in the Blues earned him his first Grammy Award after three nominations in 1984, 1987, and 1988. In 1999, in his mid-sixties, he won a KBA Award from the Blues Foundation for a Telarc recording, Fire Down Under the Hill, featuring "That's All Right," "Boot Knockin' Boogie," "Something to Remember You By," and a ten-minute solo, "Cotton Jump Boogie." Still harping in his fifty-seventh year in the business, he remarked on the James Cotton Superharp website on the importance of the audience as a barometer of his performance: "If I look out there and don't like what I see, I work harder."

by Mary Ellen Snodgrass

James Cotton's Career

Apprenticed with Rice "Sonny Boy" Williamson, 1944; began recording for Sun Records, 1950; started own radio show on KWEM (Memphis, TN), 1952; organized own band, 1966; cut first blues-rock album, 1967; gave up singing after treatment for throat cancer, 1994.

James Cotton's Awards

W. C. Handy Awards, 1987, 1991; induction into the Smithsonian Institution, 1991; induction into the Blues Hall of Fame, awarded honorary and lifetime membership to the Sonny Boy Blues Society, 1993; Theresa Needham Blues Award, 1994; Grammy Award, Best Traditional Blues Album for Deep in the Blues, 1996; two W. C. Handy Awards, selected in Down Beat 62nd Annual Readers Poll and Down Beat 45th Annual Critics Poll, 1997; Premier Harmonica Player Award, Memphis Chapter of the National Academy of the Record Arts and Sciences, KBA Award for Blues, 1999; W. C. Handy Award, 2001.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 13 years ago

I grew up across the street from him and his family, his daughter Marsha and i were good friends .This was back in the 70s .Ive been trying to get tickets to his show in nov at viper alley if anybody out there has any info would be appreciated.