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James Cotton

July 1, 1935 - March 16, 2017

Recording history:early 1950’s for Sun,mid/late-1960’s for Vanguard/Verve, 1970’s for Capitol/Buddha, 1980’s for Alligator/Blind Pig/Antone’s, 1990’s for Verve /Telarc…and more

Also recorded with:Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Johnny Young, Little Mac, Hubert Sumlin…many more in recent years

Important/historic recordings: “Blues In My Sleep”, “The Creeper”, “Rocket 88” (the 1960’s version), “Off The Wall”

Random fact: While still in his teens, James Cotton recorded for Sun Records as a sideman (with Willie Nix) AND four songs as a bandleader (“My Baby”, Straighten Up Baby”, “Cotton Crop Blues” & “Hold Me In Your Arms”).

About:Born in Tunica, Mississippi, and the youngest of many children. He first heard harp from his mother, who played train & chicken sounds on the instrument. But when a young James Cotton heard Sonny Boy Williamson (Sonny Boy #2 – Rice Miller) on the radio, his ears were opened up to the whole new world of blues harmonica. At age nine, James met Sonny Boy and became somewhat of a protege of his, learning a lot on the harmonica and about being a musician.

In the mid-1950’s, when Muddy Waters was looking for a replacement for the great Little Walter in his band for performing & recording, James Cotton got the job and went on to be part of some of the most important Chicago Blues recordings for the next 10+ years with the Muddy Waters band. Cotton’s accompaniment to Muddy is as unique & musically satisfying as any, and has had a huge impact on how harp players play within a traditional blues band (and even in a rock context for that matter). A string of strong recording sessions of his own in the 1960’s pushed James Cotton into forefront of  the scene where he was able to play concerts alongside acts such as The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and Santana.

Through the 1970’s & 1980’s when the blues scene suffered and went through many changes, James Cotton adapted and continued to work, sometimes making his blues more funky, sometimes a little more rock-oriented, but always with his harp & blues feeling in the forefront and smiling all the way.

To this day, James Cotton is one of the most influential, important and powerful blues harmonica players in history.

Recommended Recordings in-print:

  • “Best of the Vanguard Years” – Vanguard (great early Vanguard recordings)
  • “The James Cotton Blues Band” – Lilith (greatearly Verve album)
  • “Pure Cotton” – Lilith (great early Verve album)
  • “Midnight Creeper” – Just A Memory (2-CD set of live 1967 recordings)
  • “Take Me Back” – Blind Pig (good 1980’s set)
  • “High Compression” – Alligator (good 1980’s set)
  • “Mighty Long Time”– Retroworld (very good 1990’s set from Antone’s label)

Recommended DVDs in-print (with some James Cotton footage):

  • Blues Masters (Image Entertainment) – w/Muddy Waters Band

I’ve found the best selection of blues harmonica CDs to be available at:


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