Most musicians might slow down after a long and impressive career, but at 73, Grammy Award winner James Cotton is still doing about 150 shows a year – and though his recent tours have taken him to Japan, Spain, Scotland, and Norway, Cotton will soon play in Weehawken.
The James Cotton Band will perform in the Hudson Riverfront Performing Arts Center (HRPAC) free summer concert series on Aug. 6 at 7 p.m. at Lincoln Harbor Park.
In addition to Cotton on the harp (harmonica), the band includes guitarist and vocalist Slam Allen, guitarist Tom Holland, bassist Noel Neal, and drummer Kenny Neal Jr.
“Cotton’s band is very reminiscent of the classic really tight blues show bands of days gone by,” says Steve Hecht, manager and Cotton’s booking agent at Piedmont Talent in Charlotte, S.C. “He tours quite a bit, because he’s the last of a breed.”
Hecht has been in the industry for 20 years, and about a year and a half ago, he was honored to start working with Cotton, who’s often called “Superharp,” whose music Hecht has loved and respected for a long time.
“I first saw [Cotton] in 1980 in Binghamton, N.Y. at the state university up there,” describes Hecht. “I just loved the amount of energy that he and the band have and the way he works the crowd. He still does it just as well today.”
Having played with Sonny Boy Williamson as a young boy and then blues legend Muddy Waters for 12 years, Cotton has countless peers, venues, and recordings that he can claim. Some of this year’s performances include B.B. King’s, the House of Blues, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the Chicago Blues Festival. He also earned a Grammy Award in 1996 for his album, “Deep in the Blues.”
From humble beginnings in Mississippi, growing up as the youngest of eight children with their parents working in cotton fields, James Cotton received a 15-cent harmonica as a Christmas gift one year, and the rest is history.
After losing his parents at a young age, he traveled with blues musicians playing wherever he could, even as an “opening act” on the doorstep of clubs where he was too young to enter.
Quickly, he was discovered by the talented blues artists of his day and picked up as a sideman, did gigs on Beale Street in Memphis, and recorded with iconic Sun Records.
Today, he has a long and rich discography, travels the world, and calls Austin, Texas home.
“Cotton is one of the absolute last of the artists who have been recording under their own name since the ’50s when he first recorded for Sun Records,” says Hecht. “There are very few blues men that are left who have that history.”
But having such history doesn’t mean the music is history. Hecht maintains that Cotton is helping to keep the sound of true Chicago and Memphis blues alive.
“Great music is timeless,” Hecht says. “New music isn’t any better or worse than old music; it’s just newer. To hear the classic old style is just as relevant today and fresh sounding as when it’s in the hands of a master like Cotton.”
Getting a feel for Cotton
Bob Putignano, president of the New York Blues and Jazz Society, has hosted a radio show called Sounds of Blue on WFDU 89.1 in Teaneck for almost 10 years now.
“The work Cotton did with Muddy Waters was phenomenal,” explains Putignano. “Cotton had a distinct tone and he added a lot to any band he was with. There was enthusiasm in his playing, and when he could sing, in his singing too.”
Putignano was impressed with Cotton as a vocalist, but says his voice has succumbed to time and age – though Cotton can still play the harp as well as ever.
“I think considering that he hasn’t been able to sing for at least seven or eight years, the fact that his legacy and his popularity goes on says an awful lot,” Putignano adds, explaining that in blues, successful music on an instrumental basis is not an easy feat.
Putignano credits Cotton’s success to “his energy, enthusiasm, and passion – all that uplifting stuff, he had it down.”
While uplifting blues sounds like an oxymoron, Putignano reinforces the lighter side of the music style.
“A lot of people feel like blues are depressing and downtrodden and that is not true – it’s far from true,” he says, citing B.B. King as an example of “happy blues” and adding that Cotton’s music covers the spectrum of moods. “At times, he can take you down or he can lift you up, which is kind of nice.”
In essence, “The guy’s legendary,” says Putignano, explaining that Cotton has been on the scene since the ’50s and rose out of the Chicago blues era, even though he came from Mississippi. “He was there when all the masters were coming up,” a period Putignano calls “the electric roots of blues.”
Of over 100 recordings Cotton has done, along with one of his classic albums, 100% Cotton, Putignano says that the 35th Anniversary Jam released in 2002 stands out the most for him – especially as it features blues artists Bobby Rush, Kim Wilson, Jimmie Vaughan, and “queen of blues” Koko Taylor, many of whom are heavily influenced by Cotton’s dynamic work and his perpetually high-energy performances.
“That’s always what impressed me [most] about him – he had an amazing amount of energy.”
Putignano emphasizes to audiences familiar with Cotton and those just curious, “Go out and support these guys, because you never know how much longer they’re going to be around, and you’re getting to see a legend.”
For more information on HRPAC or the concert, call (201) 716-4540 or visit www.hrpac.org. For more information on James Cotton, visit his Web site at www.jamescottonsuperharp.com. For more information on Bob Putignano’s show, Sounds of Blue, visit www.soundsofblue.com.
Comments can be sent to Mpaul@hudsonreporter.com.