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Cotton is King
A few words with the quintessential blues harpist
James Cotton blew harp in Muddy Waters' band for 12 years

James Cotton is the reigning monarch of the blues harmonica players. Born in 1935 in tiny Tunica, Miss., he was, as a young boy, tutored by none other than Sonny Boy Williamson in rural Arkansas.

By the early 1950s Cotton was blowing harp in Howlin' Wolf's band, and cutting records under his own name for Sun. He then replaced harmonica legend Little Walter in Muddy Waters' band, and was integral to Waters' gutbucket sound until 1965.

Indeed, Cotton - through his work with the old guard, on his own records (as singer, songwriter and peerless harp-blower) and through later associations with the likes of Bobby "Blue" Bland, Johnny Winter and others, is one of the last living links between the original generation of blues players, and the new.

A battle with throat cancer in the 1990s left Cotton without a singing voice; the band that'll back him at the Savannah Music Festival includes two lead singers.

Cotton has difficulty speaking, too - the following is a transcription of our brief and not terribly productive conversation with him last week - but his lung power is undiminished. He is, by all reports, still more than able to "have the power to literally suck the reeds out of the harmonicas from the pure force of his playing."

That's a direct quote from Alligator Records, which released Cotton's most recent CD, Giant.

That, James Cotton most certainly is.

Has everything turned out the way you hoped it would?

James Cotton: Some of it is, some of it ain't. Well, I'd love to be in a movie. I'd love to play with some of the top stars in the world.

Way back when, we played for three, four hours a night and sometimes we didn't get paid. But the jam goes on and people liked it. The music meant something.

See, I come from Mississippi, and the people in the fields there, the farm workers were singing the blues. On Saturday night, they'd go to somebody's house and sit ‘round, playing and singing the blues. You didn't get paid very much then.

Tell me something about Sonny Boy you've never told anyone else?

James Cotton: I've told everybody everything! If it was up to me, I could say that Sonny Boy was a very nice man. He coached me and taught me everything I know. If it hadn't been for him, I never would have been heard of.

And in other ways ... he had a good pocket knife. And he drank a lot of booze. And sometimes he'd get mad. And if you made him mad, he'd use that knife.

Did he ever use that knife on you?

James Cotton: Naw, me and him never had an argument.

You worked with Muddy longer than anybody. What was he like?

James Cotton: He's one of the best people that I ever worked with, besides Sonny Boy. I think Muddy was more intelligent, in a lot of ways, than Sonny Boy was still in the country. Muddy was in Chicago, where more education was at. He had learned city ways.

I understand Muddy asked you to "play like Little Walter."

James Cotton: Those old blues singers, once they made a record, if you was in the band you had to play like the record every night. You didn't have time to feel around for it.

I told him that I would never be Little Walter, but I could play his music.