James Cotton says he never gave a thought to becoming part of the Chicago blues boom of the 1950s. Then, as quickly as Saturday night turns into Sunday morning, he was on the road north from Memphis in the illustrious company of Muddy Waters.
It was different for Buddy Guy. Ensconced in Baton Rouge, La., he dreamed about the big city and its music, practiced his guitar and saved his money until, one day in 1957, he boarded a train heading north "to find Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and the rest of the blues players I admired so much."
Cotton's acceptance into the Chicago blues scene was immediate--after all, Waters had handpicked the Mississippi-born teen - ager to come to Chicago and fill the harmonica slot in his band that previously had belonged to such masters as Little Walter Jacobs and Junior Wells.
Guy says his road was harder. Within a few months of his arrival in Chicago--33 years on, he can still tell you the date and time his train pulled in--he was broke and hungry and ready to call home and ask his mother to send him the fare back to Baton Rouge.
But Guy stayed in Chicago, and, as he tells the story, Muddy Waters had a lot to do with his decision not to make that call home for help.
Today, Guy, 53, and Cotton, 54, are still-active veterans of the '50s Chicago blues boom. They are part of a generation of players who began their lives on Southern farms and wound up in urban clubs, creating a brand of electric blues that has proved enduring in itself and crucial to the origins and development of rock 'n' roll. Both musicians continue to tour without letup--Cotton will lead his band tonight at Hamptons, and Guy plays Saturday at Bogart's and Tuesday at the Coach House.
Cotton may have had a fuller blues tutelage than anyone alive. Speaking recently from a tour stop Manchester, N.H., he recalled in a throaty, heavy-as-burlap voice how his mother taught him his first licks on the harmonica when he was a mere tot in Tunica, Miss. But Cotton said it was his uncle, Wylie Green, who first saw his precocious potential. According to Cotton, it was what he could do on a farm tractor--as much work as a grown man--that convinced his uncle that, even at age 9, the boy had the maturity to fend for himself in the world.
Since Cotton's real genius was for the harmonica, his uncle brought him to Helena, Ark., where blues harmonica player Aleck (Rice) Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson, performed on radio. Somehow, Cotton says, his uncle prevailed upon Williamson--the author of such future rock standards "One Way Out," (done by the Allman Brothers) and "Eyesight to the Blind" (incorporated by the Who into their rock opera, "Tommy")--to take the boy on as a ward. Cotton spent six years with Williamson, watching and learning.
At 15, Cotton struck out on his own and landed in West Memphis, Ark., on the outskirts of Memphis, Tenn. With his own band, he recorded for the famous Sun label that was soon to spawn the rock 'n' roll of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cotton also served a further apprenticeship as sideman to blues great Howlin' Wolf.
As for heading north to latch onto the burgeoning blues scene in Chicago, Cotton said, "I never thought of it in my life." Until, that is, Muddy Waters turned up one night in 1954 and offered him a job in his band.
"He came to this little beer joint where me and this guitar player were (performing) on a Saturday evening," Cotton recounted. Waters, needing a harmonica player to round out his band while on tour in Memphis, had been directed to Cotton.
"He said, 'I'm Muddy Waters,' and he said he wanted to give me a job." Cotton's first reaction was to look on this supposed benefactor with suspicion. Of course, he'd heard Muddy Waters on record. But he'd never seen Muddy Waters.
It wasn't until Cotton went to where Waters was playing that night that he became convinced.
"I saw the posters with his picture on 'em. 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."
While it sounds as if Cotton had an easy accession to the Chicago blues, he in fact found himself in a nerve-racking position.
"Little Walter Jacobs was in Chicago, one of the greatest harmonica players that ever lived. 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."
Early on, Cotton said, Waters commanded him simply to replicate the famous harmonica parts that Jacobs had created on Waters' records. It wasn't until Cotton participated in some successful recording sessions that he found some leeway to forge his own identity.
"When we started to get hit records together, (Waters) had to respect it, because I wrote some of them," including "Trouble, No More" and "Sugar Sweet."
After 12 years with Waters, Cotton left to form his own band, with an eye toward experimenting with a funky, more rock-oriented style of blues.
"I respected him so much, but there were other things that I wanted to play, and I would never mistreat him with his music. 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."
Today, Cotton says, he still has an ear for all sorts of music, from symphonies to rap.
"I listen to everything," he said when asked about rap. "I can't do it, 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."
In fact, Cotton's recent albums mark a return to the pure, basic Chicago blues style. "Live at Antone's" on the Texas-based Antone's label, and the current "Take Me Back," on San Francisco's Blind Pig Records, both received Grammy nominations.
Even with a schedule that keeps him on the road 45 weeks a year, Cotton says he never has lost his enthusiasm for playing.
"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. I play for the truckers on the CB when we're driving down the highway. 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."
But what about home life--isn't that something he misses?
"You can't miss something you never had," Cotton said.
Buddy Guy says he was missing home acutely that time back in 1957 when he had gone three days without a meal. His next move was going to be to a phone booth, he said in a recent interview from his home outside Chicago, if he could only muster a dime for the call.
"I was trying to contact my mom to get money to go back to Louisiana," he said. Then a man approached him on the street, offering Guy, who was toting a guitar, a bottle of wine if he'd play for him.
"I cried, 'Give me a hamburger and I'll play all night,' but he wouldn't buy me no food. He just said, 'Drink the wine.' " But as Guy tells it, the stranger took him around to a club called the 708, where Guy played his guitar and caught some well-connected ears.
"People started tipping me. I had 30 bucks. I had enough to go (back to Louisiana)." Then Muddy Waters, who apparently had gotten a phone call about this famished youngster who had put on such a hot guitar performance, drove up to the club.
"I was looking east and west, wondering which way I should go. He drove up in front of the club, and he gave me a salami sandwich. I guess he heard I was hungry. And he said, 'You ain't goin' nowhere.' "
Guy gradually became a regular session player in Chicago, backing Waters, among others, and cutting records of his own (including a recent re-release of his early '60s Chess Records recordings, "I Was Walking Through the Woods"). Guy's early work showcases a commanding, emotionally charged voice that aches and cries with searing immediacy, and a lean guitar style that drew upon B.B. King but added a strange, idiosyncratic rawness of its own.
Guy says he had fallen for the blues as a boy living on a Louisiana farm with his sharecropper parents.
"I started trying to make a guitar with wires from the window screen," he said. "My mom said, 'This house is full of mosquitoes!' I even used to take rubber bands, and I'd be there pickin' at them."
At 14 or so, Guy got his first real guitar. One of his earliest influences was Guitar Slim, the flamboyant Louisiana blues-R&B; performer.
"I went to one of his shows one night, and he played his guitar while a guy brought him in on his shoulders, with a red suit on. I said, 'Some day I'm gonna do that.' "
Actually, Guy said, he never has been carried into a concert on a valet's shoulders.
"I don't make enough money to hire a guy that big to carry me," he said with a laugh.
But he has made a reputation as a flamboyant, unpredictable performer who is apt to veer far afield from the blues, interspersing his shows with soul hits, or giving guitar history lessons in which he'll imitate the styles of B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, or whatever famous player strikes his fancy.
"In the '60s I would do (Cream's) 'Sunshine of Your Love,' and my manager would say, 'You should speak to the blues," Guy said. "But I come to please the audience. If I'm not getting smiles on faces, I say, 'Buddy, you have to get something going.' My records are not well known. I've gone 12 years without an album, and I just have to play something someone will recognize." Hence, Guy's penchant for borrowing from better-known rock and soul sources in order to get a rise out of an audience. "I'm kind of immune to not having a record out," he said. "I guess I was born on the wrong side of the moon."
Actually, anyone who has gone to a Stevie Ray Vaughan concert has probably heard his faithful rendering of Guy's hot wired recasting of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." And Guy has been acknowledged as an inspiration by Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. Clapton's 18-show stand at London's Royal Albert Hall last month included three "Blues Nights" in which Guy was a featured guest.
"They're my best friends," Guy said of his rock proteges. "They've done more for me than I guess I've done for myself."
While he tries to land a record deal, Guy has returned to his familiar role as a Chicago blues nightclub proprietor. From 1972 to 1985, his Checkerboard club served as a bandstand for many an all-star jam. Last summer, Guy opened a new club called Legends.
"I'm keeping the blues alive (with the club)," he said. "I'm not going to the bank. I don't care about that much."
Guy and Cotton both say that they have been delighted and encouraged by the recent success of Bonnie Raitt, a blues protege, and John Lee Hooker, a blues progenitor. Raitt won four Grammys last month (one of them shared with Hooker for Best Traditional Blues recording), and Hooker's album, "The Healer," is a Top 100 album that is approaching gold record status (500,000 sold)--an astonishing crossover success for a septuagenarian traditional blues man recording for a small label, Chameleon Records.
"It just gives me goose bumps to see the blues put where they ought to be," said Guy, who cited Hooker's seminal "Boogie Chillun' " as one of the first blues records he ever owned as a boy.
"I saw Bonnie Raitt on TV, getting four Grammys, and I jumped out of the bed," Cotton recalled. "I'm so proud, I don't know what to do. I think things like that (Hooker's and Raitt's success) come in time, when the time is right. You have to be consistent and hope the sun will rise and shine for you one day."
The James Cotton Band plays tonight at 8 p.m. at Hamptons, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. Tickets cost $20. Information: (714) 979-5511. Buddy Guy, with Juke Logan and Bill Lynch opening, plays Saturday night at 9 at Bogart's, in the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. Tickets: $15. Information: (213) 594-8975. Guy and the Scott Ellison Band play Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $15. Information: (714) 496-8930.