James Cotton is one of the best-known blues harmonica musicians in the world, and certainly one of the best of the modern Chicago blues stylists, recognized for the power and precision of his playing.
He was born on July 1, 1935 in Tunica, Mississippi. He started playing harmonica at a very early age, reproducing simple songs and train sounds at age 6. One day, over KFFA radio from Helena, Arkansas, he heard Sonny Boy Williamson on the "King Biscuit Time" program. From then on he tried to play all of Sonny Boy's tunes that he heard. By the time he was nine, Cotton was making more money in tips playing in front of juke joints on a Saturday than his uncle was making in two weeks driving a tractor. At that point his uncle took young James to see Sonny Boy, who was so impressed by this nine-year-old echoing his style that he took James into his home, beginning an apprenticeship under Williamson's tutelage. Six years later, when Sonny Boy left Memphis, the fifteen year-old Cotton took over his band, playing in clubs and jukes all through the region.
In 1952 James got his own fifteen minute radio show on KWEM in West Memphis. By this time he had caught the attention of Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, and began recording with Howlin' Wolf and Willie Nix. By the end of 1953, he was recording his own material. The following year Muddy Waters, who had been hearing about Cotton from a lot of people, recruited James to play in his band. It was the beginning of a twelve year collaboration.
Wanting to stretch out and play his own music, Cotton formed his own band in 1966. It didn't take him long to establish himself as a solo artist. He signed with Verve, releasing four critically acclaimed albums, and was able to crossover into the blues-rock market of that era, performing at rock festivals and blues venues such as the Fillmores in San Francisco and New York and opening for a number of rock 'n' roll acts. In the 70's and 80's, the James Cotton Band, in various configurations, continued to record for a variety of labels.
In 1987, Blind Pig released Take Me Back, an album that returned Cotton to his roots and earned a Grammy nomination. Cotton intended to put together a collection of the blues standards that have most influenced rock in an effort to "set the record straight about the history of rock 'n' roll." Accompanied by blues luminaries and former bandmates Pinetop Perkins on piano, Sammy Lawhorn on guitar, and Sam Lay on drums, Cotton recorded a sterling set of classic blues tunes that successfully captures the spirit and sound of the early days of Chicago blues.