James Henry Cotton was born in Tunica, Mississippi in 1935. He was the youngest of eight and grew up in the cotton fields working beside his mother, Hattie, and father, Mose. He was given his first harp, as a Christmas present and he listened intently to Alec Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) on KFFA’s King Biscuit time. Cotton soon could play Sonny Boy’s theme song from the radio show and, quickly mastered his other songs. Cotton entertained his fellow workers in the cotton field with his versions of his favourite harmonica player.
Young Cotton was orphaned aged 9 and his uncle took the boy and they moved to West Helena, Arkansas. finding Williamson there. There he met his hero and impressed the virtuoso, with his harmonica play. The two got on well and Williamson mentored Cotton during his early years. The young lad was too young to play inside the juke joints, but would “open” for Sonny Boy on the steps outside, playing for tips. Eventually Sonny Boy left the South to live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin but not before he told Cotton, the band was his. Unfortunately Cotton was too young to hold them together.
As a young teenager with no home, Cotton became a shoe shine boy in Beale Street, and when not shining shoes he entertained by playing blues for tips. Cotton wanted to meet Howlin’ Wolf and went to “The Top Hat” in Black Fish, Arkansas. Still too young to get in he charmed the manager with his harp and after Howlin” heard him they became close buddies. They began to play the many juke joints in Missouri, and Mississippi.
Cotton recorded four songs at Sun Records, under the direction of Sam Phillips. He was then given a 15-minute radio show on KWEM, in West Memphis, Arkansas. This would raise his profile as not everyone went to juke joints. To supplement his income, during the week he drove an ice truck during the week and played in the clubs during the weekend. His reputation preceded him and Muddy Waters asked him to join his band after Junior Walker had left. James Cotton eventually became Waters's bandleader and stayed with the group for the next 12 years.
At first, Chess Records used Little Walter on Muddy Waters recordings, with Cotton playing at the live gigs. Muddy asked James Cotton to play just like Little Walter, but Cotton eventually asked to be able to play in his own style. Cotton developed an arresting stage presence which Muddy recognized. In 1958, when Cotton began recording at Chess Records with Muddy on “Sugar Sweet” and “Close to You.”
Cotton initially formed the Jimmy Cotton Blues Quartet, with Otis Spann (piano) in 1965 to record between gigs. Then, in 1966. he left Muddy Water’s band to pursue a solo career and then toured with Janis Joplin.
The James Cotton Blues Band was formed in 1967. The band toured extensively and performed their own arrangements of popular blues and R&B from the 1950s and 1960s. As the decade progressed James Cotton firmly established himself in the blues-rock genre and gained hmself the title Superharp.
In 1977, Muddy Waters and Brownie McGhee got together and wrote “The Blues Had a Baby and They Called It Rock and Roll” which appeared on the “Hard Again” (Blue Sky label) and featured Muddy on vocals and guitar, Johnny Winter on guitar, and Cotton on harmonica. This version is sang by Howlin’ Wolf.
Cotton carried on performing and recording throughout the 80s and 90s.
In the mid 90s, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, but continued to tour, using singers or his backing band members as vocalists. Cotton's touring band included Tom Holland (guitarist and vocalist), Darrell Nulisch (vocalist), Noel Neal (bass) and drummer Jerry Porter. Giant, was released by Alligator Records in late 2010, and Cotton Mouth Man, came out in 2013.
James Cotton died from pneumonia in 2017 at the age of 81.