James Cotton, Blues Harmonica Pioneer, dies at 81

james cotton

Blues harmonica player James Cotton, who rose from poverty to introduce his instrument to the rock world, died Thursday.

The Grammy Award-winning blues harmonica master whose full-throated sound backed such blues legends as Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Howlin’ Wolf, was 81.

A statement from Alligator Records, Cotton’s label, says he died Thursday of pneumonia at St. David’s Medical Center in Austin.

Cotton had grown up laboring on a plantation in Mississippi and was orphaned by age nine. But his mother had already introduced him to harmonica, using a cheap version to imitate the sounds of chickens and train.

Cotton made his name in Chicago as part of the Muddy Waters Band and by the 1960s his harmonica piqued the curiosity of the hippies who sought to explore the blues roots of rock. Cotton backed Muddy Waters in his landmark album “At Newport” on Chess Records.

He opened concerts for Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead and collaborated with Led Zeppelin.

The Dead had “never seen a man play the harp like that,” he said of his harmonica.

“And there was nobody playin’ music like they were playin’. It was a bit too loud for me, but I enjoyed it,” he told the Montreal Gazette in 2015.

He became a mentor to Paul Butterfield, one of the most prominent rockers to play harmonica, a partnership that Cotton credited with giving him a window to white audiences.

He had heard pioneering blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II on the radio and was taken by an uncle to see the master, who took him under his wing.

Cotton later told the Chicago Tribune that Williamson taught him “how to chase women, how to drink and how to play the blues.”

“Anything he played today, I learned it tomorrow. He never said anything,” Cotton said.

Cotton, who lived his final years in Austin, released his last album in 2013, “Cotton Mouth Man,” a semi-autobiographical look at his roots.

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After going solo in the 1960s, Cotton released almost 30 albums, including his 1996 Grammy Award-winning Verve album, “Deep In The Blues.” His most recent album, “Cotton Mouth Man” for Alligator Records in 2013, was nominated for a Grammy.





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