Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harp player rubbed elbows with legends, made history

James Cotton, 78, still blowing blues fans away

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Mississippi-born James Cotton learned to play harmonica from Sonny Boy WIlliamson II.

CHRISTOPHER DURST PHOTO Enlarge Image

Mississippi-born James Cotton learned to play harmonica from Sonny Boy WIlliamson II.

THERE'S a telling moment during the YouTube video of the great blues singer and guitarist Muddy Waters performing Got My Mojo Working at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, what would become the definitive version of the song.

During an instrumental break, Waters walks over to harmonica player James Cotton, grabs hold of him and twirls him around in a dance.

On the surface it looks like a bit of spontaneous fun, but if not for Cotton, Waters wouldn't have adopted the infectious blues tune as his signature song and it seems at that moment, Waters knew what he had.

Waters had been lukewarm about the song, sung by Ann Cole, until Cotton and longtime Waters' band pianist Otis Spann wrote an arrangement for Muddy. The rest is blues history.

Cotton, a respected practitioner of the blues harp, is one of the last surviving originators of that Chicago blues sound and he fronts his tight road band on June 17 at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre as part of the 25th Winnipeg International Jazz Festival.

Cotton, who will turn 79 on July 1, still performs 50 to 100 concerts a year, he says in a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Texas.

And when he plays, he finds "audiences still appreciate the blues. They all have a good time.

"The blues is all about feeling. It keeps them coming back. It's life," says the man who first performed professionally at age nine.

Cotton, a four-time Grammy Award nominee, can take a share of the credit for the strength of the blues.

As a child in Mississippi he learned how to play the harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) and by the time he hit Chicago he replaced leading blues harpist Little Walter (of Juke fame, among others) in Waters' band in 1954.

"I was scared to take over from Little Walter," Cotton says. "Later on I told Muddy I'd never be Little Walter, but I could blow the harmonica."

He didn't have to be Little Walter. The Mojo affair "cemented my place with Muddy. He gave me free rein" after that, Cotton says.

Cotton went out on his own in the late '60s, leading his own bands and recordings under his own name. Thirty albums later, his latest, Cotton Mouth Man, got rave reviews.

For example, website AllMusic stated of the 2013 release: "Cotton may not do somersaults on stage anymore, but his harp lines do, weaving in and out of these songs like a charging Chicago freight train... Cotton may be cruising in on 80 years of age, but he's just released one of the best albums of his career."

Cotton, who has had throat surgery, has turned vocals over to Darrell Nulisch, former singer with Texas Heat and Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets. The rest of his band includes Tom Holland (guitar, vocals), Noel Neal (bass) and Jerry Porter (drums).

Cotton has no fear that the blues will ever die: "There're lots of good blues musicians behind us to keep it going."

He cites Texas guitarist Gary Clark Jr. as a prime example. Clark got his break as a teenager at Austin's famous blues club Antone's, including a night Cotton was playing "and I brought him up onstage."

James Cotton performs June 17, 7:30 p.m., at the RMTC mainstage. Tickets are $36.

The Winnipeg International Jazz Festival runs June 12-22 at various venues, mainly in the Exchange District.

Tickets are available at jazzwinnipeg.com, 204-989-4656, or the Jazz Winnipeg office at 007-100 Arthur St. Tickets are also available at Ticketmaster.

chris.smith@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2014 D3

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