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).
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.