Remembering Mr. Superharp: James Cotton's blast-furnace sound burns on

The legendary harmonica player might no longer be with us, but his legacy will continue reverberating even longer and louder than his iconic sound did during his 60-year career.

Darrin Phegley/The Gleaner/AP
Blues legend James Cotton ferociously plays the harmonica as he entertains the crowd at the W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival in Henderson, Ky., on June 13, 2014. Mr. Cotton, a Grammy Award-winning blues harmonica master whose full-throated sound backed such blues legends as Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Howlin' Wolf, has died at age 81.

When pioneering blues harmonica player James Cotton died on Thursday, he left behind a decades-long musical legacy that will continue to reverberate, perhaps even longer and louder than his blast-furnace sound did across his 60-year career.

Mr. Cotton, who was born on a cotton plantation in Tunica, Miss., in 1935, became a working musician by the age of nine. Obsessed with Sonny Boy Williamson II’s harmonica playing, he learned from him directly.

“I wanted to be just like Sonny Boy,” he explained during an interview for a PBS documentary. “I watched every move he made, every word he said.”

“If he played it tonight,” Mr. Cotton added, “I played it tomorrow.”

His career took off in the 1950s after he cut two singles for the burgeoning Sun Records, and toured with Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf, before launching into 12 years of touring and recording with blues legend Muddy Waters.

“I was there for a couple of years before I got to be on the albums,” Mr. Cotton said in the PBS documentary “American Roots Music.” “Muddy wanted me to be just like Little Walter. I told him, ‘Hey, I’ll never be Little Walter, but I can play your music, so you’ve got to give me a chance.’ I guess he heard that.”

Cotton, who was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006, made a name for himself accompanying Waters on the 1960 classic, “I’ve got my Mojo working.” Live versions show him, eyes closed, massive frame perched on a stool next to Waters, belting out backup vocals and engulfing both microphone and harmonica in his hands.

“Mr. Superharp," as he was aptly named for his virtuosity and reputation for sometimes sucking his harp reeds right out of the harmonica due to the sheer force with which he played, launched his solo career in 1966 with The James Cotton Band.

Although often lauded for his recordings with the likes of Waters, Cotton’s dynamism as a performer and band leader, sometimes back flipping live on stage, endured nearly 50 years.

Cotton’s career pushed on into the 1970s as he crisscrossed between the blues and rock worlds, working with a host of artists that began with Luther Tucker, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, and Hubert Sumlin. He was later adopted by the growing hippie audience as he worked with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Santana, Steve Miller, and Freddie King, Alligator Records wrote in its tribute.

Cotton never really slowed down. Even after illness restricted his singing, he forged ahead. In 1996 he won a Grammy for his album, “Deep In The Blues,” and his most recent album “Cotton Mouth Man” (2013), was Grammy nominated.

Cotton released 30 solo albums and earned six Living Blues Awards and 10 Blues Music Awards.

In a 2012 interview with music blogger John J. Moser, Cotton was asked what, after all his success, kept him playing. His reply was simple: “I love it. I love it. I love it, yes I do. What else could I do?”

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