Damn Right I Have the Blues! -- The James Cotton Edition

Everyone is talking about the death of rock ‘n roll legend Chuck Berry. Well, a few days before his passing, another legend died. Hardly a household name, but he certainly was in my household.

James Cotton was Muddy Waters harmonica player, who in the ‘60s, played a lot of shows at the legendary Fillmore. As a kid obsessed with rock ‘n roll, and to a lesser extend -- the blues -- I knew the name. I had certainly seen it on a few of the expensive, collectable Fillmore posters I bought.

Cotton is an appropriate name. He was born on a cotton farm in Mississippi in 1935. He had a few songs on Sun Records in the ‘50s, but made a bigger splash with Chess Records (last October, Chess co-founder Phil Chess died at 95; he was also responsible for signing Chuck Berry).

When he was 9-years-old, Cotton moved in with Sonny Boy Williamson, who was a harmonica player he idolized. He was intent on learning the harp. They ended up touring together, and he also toured with Howlin’ Wolf, before becoming the long-time sideman for Muddy Waters. Their biggest hit was “Got My Mojo Workin’”(1960).

In 1966, he formed his James Cotton Band (which included Matt “Guitar” Murphy). They played with all the big name ‘60s bands.

He snagged a Grammy working with Waters in the ‘70s, and also played on records by Dr. John, Steve Miller, Todd Rundgren, and many others. In 1997, he won a Grammy for “best traditional blues album” for “Deep in the Blues.”

He retired in 2013. Years before that, Cotton had surgery on his throat that ruined his voice. Those that saw him in concert know what I’m talking about.

The first time I had a chance to see him at the San Diego County Fair, I was thrilled. I brought an album and a harmonica for him to autograph. As I left my house, I got onto the freeway that had been having road construction for the previous four months. The workers left a huge divot in the road which flattened my tire and ruined the rim of my car. I pulled over, and three other cars were there, with people that also got flats. We all bitched about how we were suing the city (we eventually got paid without the lawsuit), but my bigger complaint was that it meant I didn’t make it to see Cotton perform.

A few years later, he showed up at a small venue I love -- the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. I brought my harmonica for an autograph, and something else I wasn’t going to get autographed. My white Maltese, which I convinced my girlfriend we should name “James Cotton.” She loved the idea, although she prefered calling him “James” while I thought saying “Cotton” worked better for a cute doggie. But I digress.

After the show, he was signing copies of his new CD (Cotton Mouth). I bought it, had him sign that and my harmonica, and told him about my dog. He laughed, and his wife Jacklyn said, “That is so flattering to hear! We’ve never met anybody that has done that. We have a black Lab that we named Muddy...after Muddy Waters.”

I said, “Well...here’s the thing. I want our dog to meet his namesake.”

She said, “We’d love to! Bring him in.”

I had the dog in the car, and as we’re coming back into the club a bouncer said, “There’s no way we’re letting you bring that dog in here.”

I didn’t have the “service dog” vest that all the other folks seem to have these days. The club also doesn’t allow you to come back in once you leave.

So, I ran around the back, and waited near where the white van was. Jacklyn asked where we had gone, and I told her what happened. As they were walking towards us, my dog started growling, before barking loudly. I then remembered...my dog always seems to bark at African-Americans and children. Every time either one would come up to say how cute the dog was, he’d try to rip them apart. So as harp legend James Cotton is bending over to pet him, saying how cute he is, he almost got his hand bit. His guitar player said, “Don’t touch that damn dog, you gonna lose a finger!”

He then tried to take a picture with the dog, and the dog went for his neck.

This was not good.

My girlfriend was laughing, but I was panicking. Sure, I already had the signed CD and harmonica, but I wanted a photo. The band suggested they get in the van, and I put the dog near the window. We did that, and...the dog was still trying to attack. But at least I got a shot of the two Cotton’s.

Needless to say...when I heard that he died of pneumonia the other day (he was 81). I was saddened. His passing gave me the blues more than any of his songs ever did.

Views: 273

Tags: Belly Up Tavern, Chess Records, Chuck Berry, Fillmore, James Cotton, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, blues Grammy

Comment by BallroomDays67 on March 20, 2017 at 12:42pm

I knew the name. I had certainly seen it on a few of the expensive, collectible Fillmore posters I bought. 

Nice story. His name is on one of the most expensive and sought after Fillmore posters, from when his band was on the same bill as your favorite band in July of '67. I hope you have that one.

Comment by Josh Board on March 20, 2017 at 9:36pm

I wish I did.

You're....BALLROOM DAYS are over, baby! Expensive posters, I want here!

Comment by Tacoma Blues on March 21, 2017 at 9:14am

Good story. He was always very gracious with fans. I had the chance to meet him and have a picture taken last year when he played with John Hammond Jr. and Charlie Musslewhite on the Blues Hall of Fame tour. He was one of the last with ties to the origins of the music. He will be truly missed.

Comment by Josh Board on March 21, 2017 at 9:32am

Ya know, TB....Musslewhite is coming to San Diego with Elvin Bishop, at a county fair that's usually easy to score autographs. I'm excited about getting him for the first time.

Comment by Sidney Fields on March 21, 2017 at 7:19pm

A heads up, Josh. Charlie Musselwhite can be an odd guy.

I've seen him very happily oblige fans' autograph requests. But a couple years ago I saw him at a small festival.  Before his set a couple of guys waited until he was done chatting with other players. He signed for one.  Then, as he was signing for the other, another person walked over.  Musselwhite angrily exclaimed, "I don't have time for this," and stalked off before he even finished signing his last name for the second guy.


Comment by Tacoma Blues on March 21, 2017 at 11:35pm

I was able to meet Musslewhite at that same show and was able to obtain a picture and photo with him as well. My experience was not like Sidney's. He was in the lobby to meet w/ fans after the show so it may be all about timing.

Speaking of Elvin Bishop, I and a few friends are going to be seeing him Saturday night at Jazz Alley in Seattle. Am hoping to meet him briefly as most shows there usually have a meet and greet afterwards. That is the venue where I had a chance to meet Pinetop Perkins and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.  Also saw Hubert Sumlin there, but he was very ill at the show. Was only a few months before he passed, sadly. 

Comment by Josh Board on March 22, 2017 at 12:12am

I once met Pinetop as well. A legend.

Comment by Sidney Fields on March 23, 2017 at 9:50am

Yeah...I've seen Musselwhite elsewhere be very fan friendly.  Who knows...maybe he just had a bad day.

The great Chicago bluesmen were all cool guys.  Cotton, Pinetop, Hubert, Big Eyes,...all sweethearts ( at least in their latter years :). Just wish I would've seen Muddy play.

Tonight I get to see one of Muddy's last sidemen, John Primer...who also played a long time with Magic Slim.



Comment by Tacoma Blues on March 27, 2017 at 10:58pm

Had an interesting experience w/ Elvin Bishop last weekend. Great show and his current band is outstanding. Saw him after the 2nd show he performed that night. I was the first in line  for an autograph after the show. With only 3 or 4 folks in line behind me I purchased a CD and thanked him for a wonderful performance.  He said thanks, signed the CD and just kind of moved on. I was considering asking for a picture, but opted not to given the rather cold fish response I received. He may have been tired, I am sure. Was simply not what I expected. Beyond the above mentioned performers, the other really positive interaction I had was meeting Jimmie Vaughan. Being a HUGE fan of his and SRV, that was a personal highlight for me. In regards to meeting Elvin, I guess we all have our off days.

Comment by Sidney Fields on March 28, 2017 at 10:51am

Jimmie Vaughn is one of the most fan friendly people around.

Elvin Bishop...maybe not so much.  If you feel bad about the experience remember the Charlie Daniels' song line about him.

"Elvin Bishop sittin' on a bale of hay. He ain't good lookin' but he sure can play."

Is touring as a "fun trio" now?


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