After more than four decades of playing the blues, 12 of them with legendary Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters, James Cotton has the emotive harp blowin' and raspy-voiced authority of the real deal. Still, the native of Tunica, Miss., is no strict traditionalist.
Cotton, who performs Friday at the weekend-long Taste of Orange County '98 at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, opened concerts for rockers Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead in the '60s and later collaborated with Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, Elvin Bishop and siblings Johnny and Edgar Winter.
More recently, he and young blues-tinged guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd hooked up to record "(Long) Gone" and "Spider & the Fly," the latter for the soundtrack of "Michael," John Travolta's 1996 movie.
"I think some of these young rockers should stay and woodshed a little bit longer," joked Cotton by telephone from his home in Memphis, where he has lived since 1994.
"But they're talented, and you have to keep moving forward. Rock 'n' roll is really just the next step beyond the blues. If more people listen to modern blues and rock, maybe they'll go back and find out about the music's roots."
The economic connection between the blues and rock 'n' roll can't have escaped Cotton's notice. Despite being a Grammy winner, his 1996 release, "Deep in the Blues," has sold only 17,000, while Shepherd's latest ("Trouble Is") is approaching gold status with sales of 452,000, according to SoundScan.
Of his work with the 21-year-old guitar slinger, Cotton added, "I guess Shepherd likes the way I play, because he called me up and asked me if I'd record some numbers with him. He's a young kid, but, shoot, he plays like a 40-year-old. In another five or 10 years, man, look out!"
In fact, Cotton's only beef is with excessively loud music, no matter the genre. Departing from his Chicago-style electrified blues, he went unplugged for "Deep in the Blues" (Verve). Featuring upright bassist Charlie Hayden, Delta blues guitarist Joe Louis Walker and pianist Dave Maxwell, the intimate, back-porch recording earned both a Grammy (for traditional blues album) and W.C. Handy Award (for acoustic blues album).
"Ya know, a lot of times, people just play loud to cover up their mistakes," said Cotton, who turns 63 next week. "A lot of today's music is so noisy it's hard to hear what's going on, ya know what I mean? I like the acoustic approach, because the true sounds of the instruments come out--and you can let silence work for you, too. Man, it's like Muddy used to say . . . you don't have to be loud, just good."
Cotton began playing harmonica at age 6, mainly imitating freight trains and barnyard critters. At 9, he fell in love with the instrument while listening to Sonny Boy Williamson wail on a nearby Arkansas radio station. Cotton's uncle introduced him to Williamson, who took Cotton under his wing. Six years later, after Williamson mysteriously skipped town, he left his band to a then 15-year-old Cotton.
That particular group didn't last long together, but it did catch the attention of Sam Phillips, founder of the legendary Sun Records. In the early '50s, Cotton recorded with Memphis luminaries Howlin' Wolf and Willie Nix before cutting his own albums, including the much-praised "Hold Me in Your Arms" and "Cotton Crop Blues."
He caught a break in 1954 when Muddy (birth name McKinley Morganfield) picked him to replace his suddenly AWOL harmonica player, Little Walter. As a sideman to a seminal figure in blues history, Cotton spent the next 12 years honing his craft. Still, frustration built up as Cotton lived in the shadow of his predecessor.
"With Muddy, Little Walter was the man," Cotton recalled. "He had his own sound, and Muddy wanted me to play his parts verbatim . . . ya know, note for note. This lasted for about seven years. So one day me and Muddy had a talk. I just said, 'Ya know, there's no way I can be someone I'm not. You've got to let me be myself.' "
Before long, Cotton moved to Chicago and struck out on his own in 1966. He has since recorded for a variety of labels, including Alligator, Verve, Vanguard, Capitol, Buddah, Antone's and his latest, Justin Time. The Canadian record company has just released "Seems Like Yesterday," a previously unavailable live recording of a 1967 performance at a Montreal cafe.
Although rough around the edges, "Seems Like Yesterday" is authentic, sweaty-sounding blues that essentially capture a spirited celebration of Cotton's newfound independence. The recording, like Cotton himself, has aged quite well.
"I'm not sure why my music still speaks so directly to folks," Cotton conceded. "I try to play from deep inside of me and keep the music honest. I prefer it upbeat and uptempo too, because all the problems people have. . . . All their daily worries . . . are gone once we start playing.
"Music has a funny way of relaxing your mind, and that's not something you can get just anywhere."
Over his long career, Cotton admitted, he has thought about "hangin' it up two or three times."
He hasn't, though, because he's still enjoying himself.
"The longer you do it, the more you take in," he explained. "Besides, the blues keep me going. What the heck would I do without 'em, anyway?"
* James Cotton performs with B.B. King on Friday at Taste of Orange County '98, El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. 6:30 p.m. The food, music and comedy festival takes place 5 p.m.-midnight Friday, noon-midnight Saturday and noon-10 p.m. Sunday. $8 general, 12 and under free. Food and beverage samples, $1-$5. (949) 664-1496.