The blues rarely sounded harder or sharper than when James Cotton brought a harmonica to his lips.
His solos burst with invention, the master telling his story with tremolos and slides, fat vibrato and ferociously bent pitches, an avalanche of thoughts punctuated with silences, so the listener could try to take it all in.
Admirers called him "Superharp," which was a bit of an understatement. The sheer lung power and technical virtuosity that Cotton brought to bear sometimes made you wonder if his tiny, hand-held instrument could withstand such force.
So Cotton's death last Thursday at age 81 in Austin, Texas, leaves a gaping space in the pantheon of blues harmonica players, not only because of the caliber of his art but because of how subsequent generations revered him.
"He was one of the most important and influential of the Chicago blues harmonica players," says Chicago blues harpist Billy Branch, who recorded with Cotton, Junior Wells and Carey Bell on the classic album "Harp Attack!"
"He was a mentor, and I consider him one of my teachers," adds Branch. "He was a great musician, a great entertainer and a great bandleader.
"He played really hard."
Cotton combined the unusual dexterity of his playing with the tremendous physicality of his performance manner, in early days doing backflips on stage between harmonica riffs and vocal shouts. Neither gravity nor the harshness of his youth could keep him earthbound.
Born July 1, 1935, in Tunica, Miss., Cotton was the youngest of nine children living "a hard life — it was really hard," he told me in 2013. "We didn't have much of nothing. … I came up the hard way."
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His first harmonica lesson, if you want to call it that, amounted to his mother blowing into a 15-cent instrument to imitate the sounds of trains and chickens. When he heard legendary harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II, the boy realized music was inside the instrument, if you knew how to pull it out, which he quickly taught himself to do.
By age 9 Cotton was an orphan, so his uncle took him to meet Williamson, who apparently was impressed to encounter a child who could play Williamson's solos back to him. Cotton spent the next six years at Williamson's side.
What did he learn from Williamson?
"How to chase women, how to drink and how to play the blues — he was doing all that," Cotton told me. "Anything he played today, I learned it tomorrow. He never said anything. Never said, 'Play like this.'
"I pretty much learned (by observing) Sonny Boy's guidance. He was a genius, in my book."
Williamson certainly had picked a promising protege, for by age 15 Cotton was surviving on his own playing Beale Street in Memphis, and wherever else he could pick up some change. He toiled as an iceman and a truck driver, recorded with Sun Records and toured with Howlin' Wolf in the early 1950s.
From Wolf, "I learned more about the business, booking the band, how to treat a band, how to keep a band," Cotton told me. "I already was playing harmonica about as good as Howlin' Wolf was.
"Then Muddy Waters come through. He heard I was on records. He came looking for me."
That was enough to get Cotton to come to Chicago in 1954, the rising star spending the next 12 years touring with the legend. Though Waters' Chess recordings until 1958 featured Little Walter on harmonica, Cotton took over and caught everyone's attention with his explosive solo on "Got My Mojo Working" at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960.
"It was a hot seat for me to fill Walter's seat," Cotton told me, adding that he considered Walter "the greatest harmonica player I ever heard."
By opening for rock attractions such as Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and Santana in the 1970s, Cotton reached a wider audience than ever before.
Surgery for throat cancer in 1994 mostly silenced his vocals, but he still had his harmonica, which was where it all started.
"My harp is like my wife," he told me. "It won't let me leave."
Still, he growled searing, autobiographical songs in his 2013 album "Cotton Mouth Man" (on Chicago's Alligator Records).
On the recording's last cut, "Bonnie Blue," Cotton rumbled a succinct version of the story of his life:
"I learned from Sonny Boy
Him and Howlin' Wolf too
Twelve years with Muddy Waters
And I know what I had to do …
Father Time has slipped up on me
Long gone is my youth
I look in the mirror each morning
And I'm staring at the truth."
That's what you heard in Cotton's music, the unvarnished truth, from an artist whose life traced much of the arc of 20th-century blues.
As for Chicago, the adopted hometown he left in 1994 when "I met a sweet little woman from Texas," the place always held deep resonances for him.
"Chicago, what I know, is a good blues city," he said. "It was a blues city when I was there. The best blues musicians then were in Chicago. And there's still a lot of great people there.
"Chicago is the blues, as far as I'm concerned."
NEA Jazz Masters
Of all the damage that will be done if the National Endowment for the Arts is eliminated, as planned by the Trump administration's proposed budget, at least one blow will fall particularly hard on jazz: the disappearance of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship.
The country's highest jazz honor has saluted musicians who don't get a fraction of the recognition they deserve, and since 1982 the prize has gone to such brilliant artists as Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter and other giants. Chicagoans such as pianist Ramsey Lewis, saxophonist Von Freeman and Jazz Showcase founder Joe Segal also have been saluted.
Should the unthinkable happen and the NEA vanish, another jazz institution ought to pick up the program, the obvious choice being Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.
But maybe it won't come to that.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
Blues harmonica legend James Cotton dead at 81
Blues legend James Cotton tells his story, in song
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