Happy blues and sad blues
James Cotton knows both
By Adam Coughlin firstname.lastname@example.org
James Cotton, the legendary blues performer from Mississippi, has toured with Janis Joplin, won a Grammy award and helped induct Little Walter into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet despite these monumental successes, his greatest moment happened when he was nine years old.
“When I was nine years old I met Sonny Boy Williamson,” Cotton said over the telephone. “And he put the music inside of me.”
The music has never left. Cotton was born in 1935 and was a young man from Mississippi who heard Sonny Boy Williamson II on the radio and later moved to Arkansas with his uncle (his parents had died) and met Williamson. Their close friendship helped shape the way Cotton played the blues. When Williamson left the South he handed over his band to Cotton. At such a young age, Cotton wasn’t ready for his own band and instead played for Howlin’ Wolf and recorded several songs with Sam Phillips and Sun Records in Memphis — the same man who discovered Elvis Presley.
In 1955, Cotton, known to many as Superharp, played harmonica with Muddy Waters. The harmonica is an instrument any person can pick up and blow into, but in Cotton’s hands it becomes almost magical and he has helped secure its role in blues music. Over the next 60 years he had a successful career as a solo artist and as band leader of the James Cotton Band. It was what he was born to do.
“This is my life,” Cotton said. His voice is gruff and his words flow together as if inspired by bebop. “I don’t know what else to do. I love music and I love being around people. Music keeps me rocking.”
And even though his words can be difficult to distinguish, his love for performing and the blues resonates through the phone. He is a man who loves what he does. And with all the success, it might be hard to keep coming up with material to make him blue. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Cotton.
In the mid-1990s he battled throat cancer, and he hasn’t contributed a vocal performance on an album since 2000’s Fire Down Under the Hill. But that hasn’t stopped him from making music. In fact, his newest album, Giant, was recently released.
Cotton will be out promoting his new album and his collection of older tunes when he performs on Friday, Oct. 8, at 8 p.m. at the Middle New Hampshire Arts & Entertainment Center, 316 Central St., Franklin. Having acts with as much name power as Cotton is a conscious effort by the folks at the old Franklin Opera House to provide quality entertainment for people in central New Hampshire.
“We’re starting to roll out programs in a more meaningful manner,” said Ryan Aquilina, assistant director. “We want acts that are high-quality and distinct and we certainly feel James Cotton is both.”
In many ways Cotton is a living monument to a different world. And while he has seen music change over the years — when he began rap did not exist — he said the blues will always survive.
“The blues will always be around,” Cotton said. “There are the happy blues and the sad blues. Some people don’t even know they got it. If your woman leaves you, you get the sad blues but if she comes back you get the happy blues.”