Blues harmonica virtuoso and onetime Muddy Waters sideman James Cotton died on Thursday at a medical center in Austin of pneumonia. He was 81. A rep for the musician confirmed his death.
Cotton, who was born on a cotton farm in Tunica, Mississippi on July 1st, 1935, came to prominence in the Fifties when he cut two singles for the fledging label Sun Records and performed gigs with Waters. As a child, he'd become obsessed with harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II's King Biscuit Time broadcasts and, at age nine, moved in with the elder harpist to learn the instrument.
He launched his own career as a teenager and toured with both Williamson and Howlin' Wolf. In 1953, he recorded his first Sun single, "Straighten Up Baby," which he followed up with "Cotton Crop Blues." At age 20, he began touring and recording with Waters and is featured on that artist's At Newport LP (1960), most notably "Got My Mojo Working." He later recorded a number of tracks for the Vanguard label's Chicago/The Blues/Today! compilation series and played on Otis Spann's 1969 album The Blues Never Die!
Cotton, dubbed "Mr. Superharp," formed the James Cotton Band in 1966, with the group issuing a self-titled debut the next year. His fellow musicians at the time were guitarist Luther Tucker and drummer Sam Lay. Cotton would later find himself playing with Matt "Guitar" Murphy and Hubert Sumlin, and would go on to explore blues-rock with performances with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Santana, Steve Miller and Freddie King, among others.
In the Seventies, he recorded for Buddha and Capitol, reuniting with Waters for LPs produced by guitarist Johnny Winter. The first, Hard Again, came out in 1977 and won a Grammy. He also made appearances on albums by Sumlin, Memphis Slim, Steve Miller and others, and welcomed Miller, Winter, Dr. John, Todd Rundgren, David Sanborn and others onto his own recordings.
Cotton continued to record throughout the Eighties, including a run on Alligator Records, and won the Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy for his Deep in the Blues LP in 1997. His most recent album was Cotton Mouth Man, which came out in 2013 and was nominated for a Grammy.
Cotton earned six Living Blues Awards in his lifetime and 10 Blues Music Awards. New York City's Lincoln Center recognized his contributions to blues with a tribute concert in 2010 that featured Sumlin, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and others. Five years later, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal gave Cotton its B.B. King Award for his contributions to the blues.
In 2013, Cotton – who played music professionally for six decades – told Rolling Stone about his thoughts on retirement. "You work so hard to get it that once you get it, you don't want to let it go, because at that point, it's yours," he said. "You paid the price for it, and it's yours. You didn't give it up when you didn't have a place to sleep tonight. It's because you want to be there and you enjoy yourself."
Funeral arrangements are to be announced. Cotton is survived by his wife, Jacklyn Hairston Cotton, daughters Teresa Hampton of Seattle and Marshall Ann Cotton of Peoria, Illinois, and son James Patrick Cotton of Chicago, as well as his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.