Listening in on living history 

Harpist James Cotton returns with historic blues

By Nicole Fitzgerald

Who: James Cotton

When: Tuesday, Jan. 31

Where: GLC

Tickets: $25

Legendary blues harpist James Cotton has seen it all.

He’s breathed the soul of blues into his harp over seven different decades and each decade the fan base has grown, until the just-turned-legal clubber and hired-a-baby-sitter-for-a-night music lover stand, head bobbing, side by side.

"There is three, sometimes four generations in my audiences and that really makes me feel good," Cotton said.

Generations of fans and music will fall under the harmonica of one man at the James Cotton concert Tuesday, Jan. 31 at the Garibaldi Lift Company (GLC).

There was never any other choice for Cotton than playing the harp; part a calling, part an affordable necessity.

His harp-playing mother couldn’t afford to buy Cotton a guitar but for 15 cents the man who would become one of the most famed harp players of our time got an instrument and began to breathe life into the blues.

To date, Cotton credits Muddy Waters as his greatest stage comrade. The two toured for 12 years before Cotton left to form the James Cotton Blues Band in 1966.

Cotton’s also rocked it out with the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Santana, B.B. King and Janis Joplin, just to name a few. Cotton would love to add The Rolling Stones to his list.

Just cresting 70 years, the music only gets better and better.

"Everything mellows with age," he said. "Knowing what I know now, I’d do it all different with more business about it."

He was all heart right from the start, his harp and himself inseparable since opening for Arkansas radio star Sonny Boy Williamson on the steps of juke joints in the South. Then he toured with Howlin’ Wolf before cutting four songs at Sun Records, including Straighten Up Baby and Cotton Crop Blues – and all this by the ripe old age of 15.

By 17 years old, he had his own radio show and the good luck of Muddy Waters introducing himself to Cotton in between a band set in West Memphis.

"Junior Wells left the band and Muddy needed a harp player, so he came to get me," Cotton said.

For 12 years, Cotton’s harp backed Muddy’s blues, until Cotton realized he needed more musical freedom.

"I’d done everything I could do in Muddy’s band and I didn’t want to try to change it. I respected him too much to do that. The biggest hit we ever had was Mojo and I’m the one who arranged it."

Cotton’s reputation as Muddy Waters’s harp player opened doors, leading to half a dozen albums released on Vanguard and Verve labels in the late ’60s and gathering speed with Grammy Award nominations for albums in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and the new millennium, including his 2002 album The 35th Anniversary Jam of The James Cotton Blues Band.

The 71-year-old musician continues to reinvent himself, sliding into country and bluegrass on his latest album, Baby Don’t You Tear My Clothes.

"Music is music and I like all parts," he said. "I’d like to be able to play a little of everything. It takes time."

For the GLC show Cotton welcomes Slam Hammer on vocals and guitar, Tom Holland on guitar, Charles Mack on bass and Mark Mack on drums.

Advanced tickets are $25. Call 604-905-2220.

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