With the sad news today that James Cotton, another icon, another legend in Music passed away today, 2017 is shaping up to being about as bad as 2016 was.
James Cotton was the undisputed King of the Blues Harmonica. Dubbed Superharp by colleague and fellow collaborator Muddy Waters, Cotton had a remarkable career which spanned decades, and he was synonymous with the Blues explosion in the early 1960s.
From his beginnings in rural Mississippi, Cotton began his professional career with Howlin’ Wolf in the early 1950s. Working his way north, he landed in Memphis and in 1953 cut his first solo sides for Sun Records.
You could say James Cotton was on the ground floor when Rural Blues went from the Chittlin’ Circuit to venues like the Fillmore, as awareness of Blues moved out of the realm of Race Music and was embraced by the newly established Rock n’ Roll audience. As Folk made a resurgence in popularity in the mid-late 1950s, so too did the attention towards Roots Music – and artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and an entire genre of others made their way into big city recording studios and became staples of FM radio to a young, primarily White audience. The Specter of American Blues made its way to Europe, where Jazz collectors, long aware of the Jump-Blues evolution taking place in Jazz in the late 1940s, took to Urban and Rural Blues as a companion art form.
And it was James Cotton, whose distinctive style of harmonica playing, made him hugely popular with growing ranks of young white musicians, establishing their own blues bands, fostering a veritable sub-culture of would-be Harp virtuosos in the process.
That Urban and Rural Blues in the mid-1960s became one of the most popular and most listened-to genres by young musicians, is an understatement. By 1968, when James Cotton had become a household name, even to the point of endorsing deodorant (he did a series of Ban Deodorant radio commercials in 1968), he was one of the most emulated and studied Blues Harp players in the world.
Becoming aware of Rock music in the 1960s meant you had to have at least one James Cotton Blues Band album in your collection – and you invariably had a friend or two who played along with your beat-up copy of the Vanguard series Chicago Blues Today series – the benchmark series you started your musical journey from.
So as a reminder of how influential and how popular James Cotton was, I ran across this performance from The Fillmore, recorded on November 25, 1966, which should give you some idea of the scope and artistry this virtuoso displayed during this heyday of Blues discovery.
RIP James Cotton – your contributions were inestimable and will continue for a very long time.