Bluesman James Cotton has lived the kind of life they make movies about.
He toiled on a Mississippi plantation from earliest childhood, found himself orphaned at age 9, practically was raised by blues master Sonny Boy Williamson II and flourished as a sideman to Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Every chapter of his life, really, tells a story about the birth of the blues, its maturation and its critical – if somewhat marginalized – position in American culture today.
But Cotton tells that tale more explicitly and eloquently than ever in his newest recording, "Cotton Mouth Man" (Alligator Records), an autobiographical album that traces his journey from a harsh childhood in the Mississippi Delta to triumph in Chicago to his current, exalted status as a 77-year-old blues legend now living in Austin, Tex.
"This album means everything to me," says Cotton, who performs the music from "Cotton Mouth Man" for the first time in concert Friday evening at the Mayne Stage. "It's good music. It's just my heart."
And soul. Listen to Cotton's harmonica playing on the album – gritty, gutsy, ferociously uninhibited – and you're hearing what great blues harp work is all about. No wonder they call him "Superharp." And though Cotton mostly gave up singing after surgery for throat cancer in 1994, he growls into the microphone once again in "Bonnie Blue," the last cut on the album and its most searing.
"I learned from Sonny Boy
"Him and Howlin' Wolf too.
"Twelve years with Muddy Waters
"And I know what I had to do …
"Father Time has slipped up on me
"Long gone is my youth
"I look in the mirror each morning
"And I'm staring at the truth."
As are we, for Cotton – who created these songs with record producer Tom Hambridge and others – lays it all out. From the loss of his parents to his jobs as iceman and truck driver, from his arrival in Chicago in 1954 to his 12-year gig with Muddy Waters, he holds nothing back.
"I was born in Mississippi – it was a hard life," says Cotton. "It was really hard. We didn't have much of nothing. I tried to get across (on the album) that I came up the hard way."
His mother attempted to play harmonica for him at his bedside at night, mimicking the sounds of a train or a chicken or whatever, inspiring Cotton to do the same. Once he heard Williamson (also known as Rice Miller) on the radio, he realized what the instrument really could do and started to mimic him. Cotton's uncle took the orphaned boy to the great blues harpist when Cotton was 9, and the child spent the next six years at the foot of the master.
What did he learn from Williamson?
"How to chase women, how to drink and how to play the blues," says Cotton. "Anything he played today, I learned it tomorrow. He never said anything. Never said: 'Play like this.'
"I pretty much learned (by observing), Sonny Boy's guidance. He was a genius, in my book."
That genius clearly rubbed off, for by age 15 Cotton was on his own, working Beale Street in Memphis and environs, recording for Sun Records and traveling with Howlin' Wolf for two years in the early 1950s. But it wasn't further harp technique that Cotton acquired from Wolf.
"I learned more about the business, booking the band, how to treat a band, how to keep a band," says Cotton. "I already was playing harmonica about as good as Howlin' Wolf was. …
"Then Muddy Waters come through. He heard I was on the records. He came looking for me."
Waters indeed recruited Cotton, who moved to Chicago play with him in 1954 and spent the next 12 years touring the world with the visionary bluesman. Though Chess Records used blues harmonica virtuoso Little Walter on Waters' recordings until 1958, Cotton then took over and made music history with his explosive solo on "Got My Mojo Working" at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960, the performance becoming a classic live recording.
"It was a hot seat for me to fill, Walters' seat," says Cotton, who to this day considers Walter "the greatest harmonica player I ever heard."
But Cotton built a huge reputation powering Waters' band for a dozen years, and when Cotton broke left, in 1966, he soon emerged as one of the most dynamic harpist-bandleaders in the business. His leather-lunged performances, kinetic stage manner and larger-than-life persona re-galvanized an art form.
"I consider him one of my mentors," says Chicago bluesman Billy Branch, who appears with Cotton on the landmark album "Harp Attack."
"Although his style was markedly different than Sonny Boy's style, you can hear some elements in it. But Cotton emerged as the most powerful player, in terms of strength."
During his biggest commercial heyday, in the 1970s, Cotton opened for rock acts such as Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and Santana. He won a Grammy Award in 1996 for "Deep in the Blues" and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis in 2006.
Though it might seem thoroughly natural that the veteran bluesman would choose to look back on his life with his latest album, the personal nature of the recording was not his idea.
"I wrote a song called 'Cotton Mouth Man' about James, and that was the seed," says Nashville record producer-songwriter Hambridge, who yearned to get Cotton's story on disc and sent the tune to him.
"I said, 'You need to come out to Nashville and hang out with me.'"
Cotton and his wife, Jacklyn Hairston agreed, and the songwriting and recording process began.
"I would be sitting there, and he would talk about Bonnie Blue, being born on (that) plantation," remembers Hambridge. "And it ends up, 'Long gone is my youth ... and I'm staring at the truth.'
"And he said: 'Who's going to sing that?'
"And I said: 'You will sing that.'
"He was not into doing it. But there becomes a trust factor when I'm working with somebody. They begin to know that all I want to do is make the best record I can make. …
"And he did it. And I had chills listening. … I just thought people should hear him tell that story." (The other vocals are sung by guests such as Gregg Allman, Keb' Mo' and Delbert McClinton.)
A lot has changed since those early days: the blues, the industry, and the way the world regards Cotton.
"Because of the venues that Cotton is playing now – performing arts centers, Lincoln Center, people really come and study him," says Hairston, his wife. "You can see the seriousness on their faces.
"It's a totally different audience, because they've all grown up with him, and now they're bringing their kids and grandkids.
"Young bands, most of them young men, they want some advice, and he's always glad to give it."
Says Cotton, "Most of them think I have something secret in my harmonica."
Indeed he does: James Cotton.
James Cotton plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave.; $35; 773-381-4554 or maynestage.com.
To read more from Howard Reich, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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