Blues harmonica player James Cotton, Mr. Superharp, dies at 81

Mississippi blues harp player James Cotton was certainly considered lucky for the break he got joining Muddy Waters’ band in the late 1950s, taking over a spot previously held by such venerated harmonica whizzes as Little Walter and Junior Wells.

But it wasn’t a one-way street. Cotton is credited with the suggestion that Waters add a particular song to his repertoire, one that soon became Waters’ musical calling card: “Got My Mojo Working.”

That may well be part of the reason that Waters was always ready to share the spotlight with other musicians with him on a bandstand.

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“When one of my band members goes over big, I really like it,” Waters told author James Rooney in his book “Bossmen.” “A lot of people ain’t like that. They don’t want to give their band members a break. … I let them all try. They feel good behind that, you know. Everybody wants to be a star. So I give ’em a chance.”

That’s precisely what happened for Cotton, who’d grown up tutored directly by no less a blues titan as Sonny Boy Williamson II. After leaving Waters’ band in the 1960s, Cotton launched a solo career that took him out on his own for decades, up until shortly before he died Thursday of pneumonia at 81 in a hospital in Austin, Tex.

During his life, Cotton released more than 30 albums and received a Grammy Award for best traditional blues album of 1996 for his “Deep In the Blues” album.

He also collected multiple awards from blues organizations and was inducted into Memphis’ Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.

It was in Memphis where Cotton received an early break from visionary Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips, who was ardent about recording black musicians from the region.

Phillips famously recorded Howlin’ Wolf (with whom Cotton also apprenticed as a teen), B.B. King, Ike Turner and other African American blues and R&B musicians before discovering and bringing to the world Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and other seminal rock ’n’ roll and country stars.

Phillips released two singles from Cotton, “Straighten Up Baby” in 1953 and “Cotton Crop Blues” the following year.

Cotton was still a teenager working as a regular on the Memphis music scene when Waters came to town in 1954 without Wells along, and hired Cotton to take over the harmonica spot in his band.

“He came to this little beer joint where me and this guitar player were [performing] on a Saturday evening,” Cotton told The Times in 1990. “He said, ‘I’m Muddy Waters,’ and he said he wanted to give me a job.”

Initially, Cotton was suspicious. He had heard Waters’ music on record and on the radio but had never seen the fabled Chicago blues man in person. That changed when he went to check out the club where Waters was booked to perform.

“I saw the posters with his picture on ’em,” Cotton said. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is the right cat.’ I never dreamed I’d be going to Chicago or playing with Muddy Waters. But I played in Memphis [with Waters] that Saturday night, and that Sunday morning we were off to Chicago.”

Upon returning to Chicago with Cotton now in the fold, executives at Chess Records insisted that Waters continue using Little Walter on his recordings. It is Walter who is heard on Waters’ 1958 recording of “Got My Mojo Working” after Cotton brought it to his attention. But Cotton got the spotlight on the subsequent live version recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960.

He confessed it wasn’t easy following in Little Walter’s footsteps.

“Little Walter Jacobs was in Chicago, one of the greatest harmonica players that ever lived,” he said. “There was a whole lot of pressure on me. I had to learn how to play harmonica all over again. It made a musician out of me.”

After a dozen years playing with Waters, Cotton ventured out on his own, a move that allowed him to express his own musical vision.

“I respected [Waters] so much, but there were other things that I wanted to play, and I would never mistreat him with his music,” Cotton said. “If it was rock ’n’ roll, he didn’t want to touch it. But I felt that if I can play an instrument, I should play whatever I want.”

James Henry Cotton was born July 1, 1935, in Tunica, Miss., and picked up the nickname “Mr. Superharp,” becoming famous for a highly energized performance style that incorporated much of the energy and performance dynamics from rock ’n’ roll.

After forming his own James Cotton Band in 1966, he was soon touring with blues-influenced rock acts such as Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Santana and Steve Miller as well as fellow blues players including B.B. King and Freddie King.

Two of the James Cotton Band’s albums broke into Billboard’s 200 Albums chart, a relative rarity for blues musicians: 1967’s “The James Cotton Blues Band” and 1975’s “100% Cotton.”

He received an all-star salute in 2010 at Lincoln Center in New York at a performance that featured Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and others.

He was honored in 2015 by the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal as the recipient of the festival’s B.B. King Award, recognizing his seven decades in music.

Throughout his life Cotton remained open to other forms of music, including rap, although he said it wasn’t a style he’d want to attempt.

“I listen to everything,” he said. “I can’t do [rap], but I listen to it. They make a lot of money doing it, God bless ’em. Even if I tried it, it would come out like the blues.”

He also noted that his constant companion through everything has been his harmonica.

“Twenty-four hours a day, every day, you’ll catch me with a harmonica," he said. “I sleep with ’em in the bed with me. … The highway is my home, and my Dodge van is my bed, and the blues is my companion. I’m going to do it till I die.”

Cotton is survived by his wife, Jacklyn Hairston Cotton, daughters Teresa Hampton and Marshall Ann Cotton and son James Patrick Cotton, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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