Born on Highway 61

James Cotton at 65, Austin's Newest Bluesman

James Cotton with Jimmie Vaughan at Antone's, January 5
James Cotton with Jimmie Vaughan at Antone's, January 5 (Photo By John Carrico)

On a Friday night at Antone's in early January, Austin's newest celebrity resident James Cotton is playing to a standing-room-only audience. He's seated center-stage on a stool because that's what his health demands, but it doesn't keep him from blowing harp with hurricane force. Derek O'Brien and Jimmie Vaughan, meanwhile, trade guitar licks side by side, while Riley Osborn's keyboards fill out the sound. Bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer George Rains simmer with a steady beat as Cotton leads them into "Further on up the Road." It could be one of a thousand nights James Cotton has led off a song onstage.

To say that James Cotton has the blues coursing through his veins is to overstate the obvious. The reason for such hyperbole is simple: James Cotton was born with the blues in his blood. He grew up alongside Highway 61, Old Man River just to the west and Memphis less than an hour across the Tennessee border. It's a legacy he carries with pride and energy, and at 65, he's not letting anything get in his way.

"I've always been a bluesman and I guess I always will be," the man sometimes called Mr. Superharp states unequivocally.

He's right. They just ain't makin' 'em like James Cotton anymore.

Memphis Bound

James Cotton grew up in Hard Times, Mississippi, otherwise known as the town of Tunica, the youngest of nine children to Mose and Hattie Cotton. His parents were sharecroppers, working in fields still managed by plantation bosses and overseers in the Thirties and Forties. It's an image of the Old South he recalls with no rancor but much detail.

"It was the Old South," he says. "There was the boss; he'd tell the farmer what to do and he'd do it. Still like that down there in some of the places. We didn't own the land, but there was a lot of land around us. My parents were sharecroppers. We had some cows, chickens -- hogs. Mostly we just worked on the farm."

Cotton was too young to work the fields, but he fetched water for those who did. In between runs, he'd seek out the shade of the overseer's horse and play the harmonica he'd gotten from his mother. She had used it to imitate chickens and train whistles, but young James discovered the instrument could do much more.

"I am the baby of the nine kids," explains Cotton. "I was my mother's brother's pick out of the kids, so Uncle Wiley taught me everything he had to do. When I was seven years old, I was driving a tractor out in the field with him. I made $36 for working two weeks, same as he got. Then I sat on the porch and played harp for an hour on a Saturday and got $46. So [after my parents died], Wiley said, 'This ain't no place for you, you shouldn't be here doing this,' and he took me to Sonny Boy Williamson."

"He listened to Sonny Boy's music on the radio; KFFA was the station. Once I got to Sonny Boy, I played his radio theme and he listened. Wiley said, 'I wanna get him off that farm.' So he talked Sonny Boy into taking me on and said, 'I'll take care of him, I'll pay his wayí' but I paid my own way."

Sonny Boy Williamson, born Aleck "Rice" Miller, didn't have just any old radio show, he hosted King Biscuit Time, a 15-minute program broadcast from across the Mississippi in Helena, Ark., from 1941-47. Named for the sponsoring flour company, King Biscuit Time is cited repeatedly by those who grew up in the area as one of the few outlets for the rural blues being recorded and played at the time.

(Aleck "Rice" Miller was known as Sonny Boy Williamson for radio purposes and eventually adopted the name, but he was the second performer to do so. The first was John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, who first popularized the name. The distinction is seldom made and leads to much confusion, but it was Rice Miller who hosted the show.)

It was under Williamson's tutelage that Cotton developed his distinguished sound.

"At a house, a juke joint I guess you'd call it, you'd take the couch out of the living room and have a party that night," recalls Williamson's protégé. "We'd stand in the corner and play, a rope tied across in front of us, and that's the way it was. Sometimes we'd dress up; usually I wore jeans, khakis. Sonny would wear white overalls with those big pockets on the side, a black chauffeur's cap, black shoes. When I got into Muddy's band, aw man, did it change!"

James Cotton at the Vulcan Gas Company, 1969
James Cotton at the Vulcan Gas Company, 1969 (Photo By Burton Wilson)

While on tour with Williamson in Arkansas, Cotton got word that Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf, was playing in nearby Black Fish at the Top Hat. Anxious to meet the feral blues belter, the underage teen talked the owner into letting him inside. The music did not end until the wee hours of that morning, and when they were done, Cotton was off touring the chitlin circuit with the mighty Wolf.

Later, Cotton found himself the head of Sonny Boy Williamson's band when the elder bluesman abruptly left the state. The responsibility proved too much.

"I was too young and crazy in those days," laughs Cotton, "and everybody in the band was grown men -- so much older than me."

Like aspiring musicians before him, he gravitated to bright lights and the big city, Memphis, Tenn., in this case. And what a place to be! Memphis was a bustling port in the Forties and played host to some of the world's finest blues pouring out of Beale Street's many venues. Employment opportunities were slim for teens, but Cotton found a job shining shoes.

It was also in Memphis that young Cotton cut his first sides for the famed Sun Records label: "Straighten Up Baby," "Hold Me in Your Arms," "Oh, Baby," and "Cotton Crop Blues." At 17, he began hosting his own 15-minute radio show on KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas, and carried on the tradition he'd learned from Sonny Boy Williamson of spinning blues for its native audience.

As the first major stop in the trek north to Chicago, Memphis attracted many players from the South. It's been said that the seeds of Chicago's own blues were sown in Memphis, and certainly the port city has produced prodigious amounts of music. Memphis was also a good place to be because James Cotton was about to meet the man who would help make him a star.

Meet Me at the Hippodrome

McKinley Morganfield acquired the nickname Muddy Waters as a child growing up in Delta Rolling Fork, Miss. After mastering slide guitar listening to the likes of Son House and Robert Johnson, he moved north to Chicago, where wartime meant prosperity and jobs.

Waters was unique among the musicians of his day, a handsome, dapper bandleader with a rumbling voice that sang thundering blues with majestic command. His players included dozens of musicians who would go on to fame in their own right: Jimmy Rogers, Junior Wells, Little Walter, Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Luther Johnson, and James Cotton. Muddy Waters was King Blues, playing an electrified version of the Delta blues that in Chicago's urban clubs was an epiphany.

Waters also wrote songs that reached down into the soul. "Buryin'í Ground," "Where's My Woman Been," "Mean Mistreater," and his unofficial anthem, "I've Got My Mojo Workin'í" conjured the superstitions and concerns of those whose lives were spent toiling in the fields and working under the hot sun. Waters' belly-rubbin' blues and sultry rhythms were prime examples of postwar blues and enormously popular on the touring circuit. Cotton recalls the night in late 1954, when he was just 19, that his career began its upward spiral.

"I was driving a gravel truck and playing on the weekends at the Dinette Lounge," remembers the bluesman almost a half-century later. "I'd already recorded with Howlin' Wolf. Muddy knew I was in Memphis somewhere and he came looking for me. Junior Wells was in the band, but for some reason fell out with Muddy, so he left. I got off that Friday evening and went to my gig and started playing.

"He waited for me after the gig and walked up and introduced himself, 'My name is Muddy Waters.' I just looked at him and said the first thing that came to mind:

"'Yeah, my name is Jesus Christ.'"

Cotton laughs deeply at the memory.

"All I could think was, 'What is Muddy Waters doing in a place like this!?'

Cotton's first post-Muddy Waters band, 1967-68 (l-r): Luther Tucker, Francis Clay, Cotton, Albert Gianquinto, and Bobby Anderson
Cotton's first post-Muddy Waters band, 1967-68 (l-r): Luther Tucker, Francis Clay, Cotton, Albert Gianquinto, and Bobby Anderson

"But I'd been listening to the radio, and I knew he was playing the next night.

"'Meet me at the Hippodrome tomorrow night at 9 o'clock,' said the man.

"Now, I'm still not sure this is who he says he is, but [when I show up the next night], there's Jimmy Rogers and Otis Spann, so I go sit down in a corner and keep my eye on them.

"Showtime. Jimmy Rogers comes over to me and asks if I can play in the key of A. So we just start off playing a little shuffle. We get through playing that and Jimmy starts singing 'That's All Right.' Now, I'm still waitin' to see if this man is Muddy, because once I hear his voice, I'll know.

"Jimmy goes over to the mike and says, 'And now it's time for the show -- Muddy "Hoochie Coochie Man" Waters!' So Muddy starts singing 'Baby Please Don't Goí' and I was like, 'Yeah!! That's him!'"

Cotton spent the next 12 years touring with Muddy Waters, though he didn't record with him until 1958.

"If you had a Muddy record and listened to it and then saw him play at night, you heard just what you had at home. There was nothing different. 'Play it like Walter,' he always said. That's what he wanted."

"Play it like Walter," Waters commanded, and for many years, Cotton did. Little Walter Jacobs was Muddy's harp player on recordings, though both Junior Wells and later Cotton did the tours.

"I'm not Walter," Cotton finally told Waters, and proceeded to prove just that by developing into his own frontman. In 1960, at the Newport Jazz Festival, Cotton earned his stripes with a blistering harp solo during "I've Got My Mojo Workin." He would perform with Waters for six more years, but he was already working toward the day when he would strike out on his own. His big, solid stature and toothy grin commanded attention onstage, while his harmonica technique escalated with a muscular sound that made James Cotton recognizable on record as well as in person. There were times when his exuberant boogie made the harpman literally do backflips onstage, delighting the audience.

"I did them to close a show one night," he grins. "Whoop! I went right over. Then whoop! I went right back! They went crazy!"

Cotton's songwriting also developed with tunes like "Feelin' Good" and "Hold Me in Your Arms" becoming staples of his sets and the Ike Turner collaboration "Rocket 88" turning into such a classic that the Blues Brothers and Sha Na Na both used the song. Fueled with a desire to be his own man before the audiences he was entertaining, he wanted his own band to lead.

"It was time to move on to something else," offers Cotton of his decision to leave Muddy Waters' band.

In 1966 he did just that.

Hippies and Harps

James Cotton could not have chosen a better time to go solo than the mid-Sixties. American music was just beginning to recover from the British Invasion two years earlier, and yet, most of the popular British bands like the Rolling Stones, Animals, Yardbirds, and even the Beatles knew what the audiences in Mississippi juke joints, Memphis clubs, and Chicago bars understood: that the heart of rock & roll lay in blues.
Sonny Boy Williamson and Peck Curtis live on the air.
Sonny Boy Williamson and Peck Curtis live on the air.

Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Bonnie Raitt, and other young white musicians were paying attention. Even the psychedelic bands were using blues standards in their repertoires, notably Janis Joplin plowing headfirst into Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain" and Cream's blistering version of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful."

With 12 years of playing in Muddy Waters' band behind him, Cotton released the first of four solo albums, Cut You Loose on Vanguard, followed by Pure Cotton, Cotton in Your Ears, and The James Cotton Blues Band on Verve. Vanguard's roster included Buffy St. Marie and Odetta, while Verve had been home to John Coltrane and Billie Holiday. These were hardly typical artist rosters, but all acts would later rise to the top of their fields.

Another bit of serendipity was working in Cotton's favor. Not only were the blues popular among the young white bands, but hippie concert halls like the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco began booking the likes of Cotton, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Albert King, and other bluesmen.

"I knew Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop, and Nick Gravenites from Chicago were playing the Fillmore," explains Cotton. "So I went over to the hall and Elvin got me in by saying I was James Cotton from Muddy Waters' band. Someone made a mistake and said, 'Muddy Waters is here!' So they called me Muddy Waters.

"I kept telling 'em, 'I'm not Muddy Waters!' 'Hey Muddy, come on over here,' they'd say. 'No, I'm not Muddy!' I'd say. They called me to the bandstand and called me Muddy Waters. I must have told them 15 times, 'I'm not Muddy Waters!' I guess they were just excited."

Cotton toured the U.S. throughout the Seventies and played such Austin venues as the Armadillo World Headquarters, Castle Creek, and the original Antone's regularly. During a hot night in May 1976, Cotton was booked at Antone's when Steve Miller stopped in. The guitarist was in town performing and came to pay homage to Cotton, whose music had influenced Miller's popular blues-rock. Backstage was a lovefest of young and old players meeting on common ground, and the show that ensued that night helped establish Antone's fabled super-jams when Miller joined Cotton onstage.

Another legend came from Antone's Guadalupe days in the late Eighties, the tale of an ailing Cotton who couldn't resist the lure of his old friend Junior Wells playing at the club close to where he was hospitalized at Seton. As myth has it, a pajama-clad Cotton snuck out of the hospital under cover of darkness and surprised Wells onstage. Surprise Wells he did, but the appearance was not so clandestine.

"I'd gone in the hospital on Monday and gotten better," Cotton recounts. "Someone told me Junior was playing Friday and I thought, 'No kidding, wonder if I can get a pass.' So the doctor said yes, but I had to be back at 1am. I saw Clifford and Willie Nelson's sister Bobbie as I came in and I eased up to the bandstand and said, 'Shhhhh,' then blew my harp and everyone jumped. Junior shot out of that dressing room and I looked back grinning."

The Eighties were full of touring, recording, and playing, but no backflips. Even a serious bout with drugs couldn't stop his incendiary performances, and his 1984 album High Compression on Alligator Records was nominated for a Grammy, as was '87's Take Me Back on Blind Pig Records and '88's Live with Matt "Guitar" Murphy and Luther Tucker for Antone's Records.

The Nineties found Cotton clean and continuing to receive awards and recognition, beginning in 1991 with his induction into Chicago's Blues Hall of Fame and later the Smithsonian Institution. That year, he also won two W.C. Handy Awards: Contemporary Album of the Year for Harp Attack and Instrumentalist of the Year. In 1993, Cotton became an honorary lifetime member of the Sonny Boy Blues Society. And the awards kept coming; in 1996, Cotton won his first Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album via Deep in the Blues.

Winning awards was notable payback for the years he had devoted to his music, and Cotton took great pride in them. By the end of the Nineties, he was living in Memphis again playing music as he always had. If Memphis had opened doors for him before, Cotton was ready to walk through another one. He had put in nearly 60 years of playing and recording, undergone throat surgery, and wanted a change. The new millennium was the right time, once again.

Grammys and Elgin Sausage

On a cool, clear Saturday, following a week of rain, dishwater gray skies, and cold winds, James Cotton and his companion Jacklyn Hairston are at Hoover's on Manor Road perusing the menu. Jacklyn, an attractive woman with auburn hair and bright blue eyes, lives with Cotton and helps oversee his personal business, but at the moment, she's reading the menu aloud as Cotton responds with noises of approval.

"She's my baby," Cotton declares with a wink and grin.

"Chicken fried steak," says Hairston, reading through some items.

Born on Highway 61
Photo By John Carrico

"Mmm-mmm," he nods.

"Jamaican jerk ribs," she continues.

"Mmm-hmm," his approval is obvious.

"Elgin sausage," she says.

"Stop right there," motions Cotton, smiling broadly.

Elgin sausage it is.

The butcher paper on the table crackles as Cotton gets comfortable in the wooden booth when the food arrives. Since moving to Texas in October, he's found great pleasure in living on the outskirts of South Austin. Hairston lived in Central Texas before, but this is Cotton's first time as a resident of the Lone Star State, and he seems right happy to be here.

"I've always liked Texas and Texas blues," he states. "I played through Austin for so many years. Texas crowds are very good; they love music. When I was living in Chicago, Clifford would call and say, 'Come here for a week, come to the club -- play every night,' and I would. I had a good time playing there."

"A good time" is a modest way of putting it. James Cotton is so devoted to his friend Clifford Antone that he regularly visits the club owner in the Bastrop facility where Antone is incarcerated on federal drug charges. Cotton plans to make the club that bears Antone's name his home while he's in Austin, and though it will be a while before Clifford gets to witness what the full house did that Friday night a few weeks ago, it's all just part of the blues business, baby.

As Cotton settles back, he tips his cap back on his head. His round cheeks have a muscular curve from years of blowing harp, and the sheen of his deep bronze-dappled complexion is warm and full of ready laughs at the past. He sometimes cocks an ear to listen, the years of playing having taken their toll on his hearing, and his voice is scratchy and hoarse.

When he describes the process of picking cotton, his golden brown hands splay wide and powerful. He's played with the giants of blues and become one along the way for all the right reasons. At 65, he's not ready to rest on his laurels, but James Cotton will definitely accept honors offered.

"I won't get it," he says of the Grammy nomination he earned this year for Superharps, recorded with Billy Branch, Charlie Musselwhite, and Sugar Ray Norcia. His competition includes the Eric Clapton-B.B.King collaboration Riding With the King, and Cotton's prediction that he won't win is probably pragmatic. He has future recording plans he's not quite ready to announce, but neither is he just looking to win more prizes. He's content to play the music he learned 60 years ago on Highway 61 and pass it on to anyone willing to listen.

And what about those backflips?

Cotton smiles big and pats his round belly stuffed with Elgin sausage.

"I might do 'em again -- one of these days!" end story

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