Born: July 1, 1935, Tunica, Mississippi
Died: March 16, 2017
Photo credit: Bill Steber – www.steberphoto.com
Like many of his peers, James Cotton grew up in Mississippi, before gaining fame in Chicago as a harmonica master. Cotton was born and raised on the Bonnie Blue Plantation near Tunica, Mississippi—an impoverished community on the famed Blues Highway 61. As a child, Cotton worked in the fields with his family, which included nine children. He learned to play the harmonica from his mother who taught him how to imitate the sounds of trains and chickens. Cotton became enamored with the blues while listening to the King Biscuit Time radio program featuring Sonny Boy Williamson (aka Rice Miller) broadcast over KFFA, West Helena, Arkansas. In the early 1950s, Cotton began his professional career with the Howlin’ Wolf band. In 1953–1954, he recorded for Sun Records in Memphis. In 1954, Cotton joined the Muddy Waters band and relocated to Chicago. He remained with Waters for the next twelve years, recording and touring across the country. In 1966, Cotton formed his own group and toured concert halls opening for Janis Joplin. During the 1960s and 1970s, Cotton appeared with Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Steve Miller, and other rock stars. During the 1990s, Cotton struggled with throat cancer, which left him unable to sing. After numerous nominations, Cotton was awarded a Grammy in 1997 for his recording Deep in the Blues. Cotton continued to tour and record up until his death in 2017, playing the authentic blues he lived and learned years earlier from Sonny Boy Williamson.