James Cotton, who learned to play the harmonica as a child in the Mississippi Delta and went on to be a major figure in blues music as a sideman to Muddy Waters and as a Grammy Award-winning solo performer, died Thursday at a hospital in Austin, Texas. He was 81.
His death, caused by pneumonia, was announced by his record label, Alligator Records.
Cotton grew up in the fabled Delta blues heartland of northern Mississippi and learned the harmonica from his mother before he became an orphan at 9. He began performing professionally soon thereafter and brought a showman’s flair to the classic blues tradition, sometimes doing back flips on stage.
A direct link to earlier generations of blues musicians, Cotton later appeared alongside dozens of acclaimed performers, from Janis Joplin and B.B. King to Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.
Cotton wrote many tunes and sang in a gruff, guttural vocal style, but he was better known for his skill on the harmonica — or “harp,” as blues musicians often call it. Along with his mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson, and other artists such as Sonny Terry, Little Walter and Junior Wells, Cotton was recognized as one of the foremost masters of the blues harmonica.
“Listen to Cotton’s harmonica playing,” Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich wrote in 2013, “gritty, gutsy, ferociously uninhibited — and you’re hearing what great blues harp work is all about. No wonder they call him ‘Superharp.’ ”
Gripping a harmonica and microphone at the same time, Cotton practiced a technique called circular breathing, in which he inhaled through his nose while continuing to play long, energetic lines on his harmonica. His approach could be mournful, sweet or fleet, and he sometimes played so hard that the small instrument fell apart in his hands.
In the early 1950s, Cotton recorded as a singer at Sun Records — the same Memphis recording studio where Elvis Presley launched his career. He then spent 12 years in Waters’ band and performed on the singer’s groundbreaking 1960 live album from the Newport Jazz Festival, which included a churning version of “Got My Mojo Working.” At one point in the song, Waters and Cotton playfully danced together.
Cotton formed the James Cotton Blues Band in 1966 and toured the world for years, performing his harp-focused version of Chicago-style blues, which also featured his rhythmic, unadorned singing. He released the first of more than 25 albums in 1967.
“Twenty-four hours a day, every day, you’ll catch me with a harmonica,” Cotton told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I sleep with ’em in the bed with me. I play for the truckers on the CB when we’re driving down the highway. The highway is my home, and my Dodge van is my bed, and the blues is my companion.”
James Henry Cotton was born July 1, 1935, in Tunica, Mississippi. His parents were sharecroppers.
Survivors include his second wife and manager, Jacklyn Hairston; three children; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“I’m not sure why my music still speaks so directly to folks,” Cotton told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “I try to play from deep inside of me and keep the music honest. I prefer it upbeat and up-tempo too, because all the problems people have . . . are gone once we start playing.”