James “Mr Superharp” Cotton’s high energy, soulful vocals and extraordinary harmonica playing have produced some of blues finest moments. A small group of musicians working in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s created modern blues harmonica-playing, among them Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Walter Horton and Junior Wells.
James Cotton, who died aged 81 in 2017, was the last of that company, but he probably travelled more widely, and was heard by more people, than any of them. In a career spanning six decades he played at all the major blues and rock festivals, made more than two dozen albums and gathered armfuls of awards.
Cotton began his professional career playing the blues harp in Howlin’ Wolf’s band in the early 1950s. He made his first recordings in Memphis for Sun Records, under the direction of Sam Phillips. In 1955, he was invited by Muddy Waters - who nicknamed him “Mr Superharp” in honour of his talent on the harmonica - to Chicago and join his band.
Cotton became Waters’ bandleader and stayed with the group until 1965. In 1965 he formed the Jimmy Cotton Blues Quartet, with Otis Spann on piano, to record between gigs with the Muddy Waters band. He eventually left to form his own full-time touring group.
During this time he released a range of live and studio albums, including 100% Cotton, High Energy and Live & On The Move. He combined this work with his own bands with forays into blues rock territory through collaborations with artists such as Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and Santana, among others.
In 2006, Cotton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame at a ceremony conducted by the Blues Foundation in Memphis. He has won or shared 10 Blues Music Awards. The Best of James Cotton is a collection of his recordings which occurred during the decade following his departure from the Muddy Waters Band.