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Blues Harmonica Legend, James Cotton, RIP

James Cotton at Monterey, 1981
James Cotton at Monterey, 1981

It’s a sad feature of the modern world that a significant event can easily be overshadowed in the popular consciousness if it happens to coincide with a different event that is deemed more newsworthy by the media.

Recent history is littered with examples of this kind of “popularity Top Trumps”, not least of which were Mother Theresa’s death being eclipsed by Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, and Groucho Marx’s passing away being dwarfed by the untimely demise of Elvis Presley.

And so, in the week that has given us the death of Chuck Berry, one of the true pioneers of early rock and roll, it is, perhaps, inevitable, that the loss of blues harmonica legend, James Cotton, has been somewhat overlooked.

Cotton, who was known for his virtuoso harp work, both as a solo artist and on recordings and performances with a range of blues and rock acts, died of pneumonia on Thursday 16th March 2017 in Austin, Texas, at the age of 81.

Early Life

Born in Tunica, Mississippi, but later moving to West Helena, Arkansas, where he met and was mentored by blues harmonica player and songwriter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Cotton actually began his musical career, albeit the amateur part, as a drummer. It soon became clear, though, that the harmonica was where his talents lay, resulting in him being recruited, in the early 1950s,  to Howlin’ Wolf’s band, where he remained for a number of years.

In 1953, he recorded his first solo record – Straighten Up Baby – for Sun Records, following this with a second single – Cotton Crop Blues.

From Blues to Rock

After a stint recording and touring with Muddy Waters, Cotton, by then nicknamed “Mr Superharp” in honour of his talent on the harmonica, fronted a number of eponymous bands, including the James Cotton Blues Band. During this time he released a range of live and studio albums, including 100% Cotton, High Energy and Live and On the Move. He combined this work with his own bands with forays into blues rock territory through collaborations with artists such as Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and Santana, amongst others.


In the 1970s he resumed his work with Muddy Waters, which reached its zenith with the Grammy award-winning Hard Again LP, released in 1977. The 1980s brought further Grammy nominations for his Live in Chicago and Take Me Back albums, then in 1996 he received a Grammy in the Best Traditional Blues Album category for his Deep in the Blues LP. His work in the 2000s included Grammy-nominated studio albums, Giant and Cotton Mouth Man.

He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006 and in 2010 was honoured by New York’s Lincoln Center with an all-star concert. The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal paid tribute to Cotton with their 2015 B.B. King Award for his contributions to the blues.

Later Years

Cotton continued to tour, even  as a senior citizen, and credited this as a means by which he felt younger:

“That’s because I like to see people dance and have a good time,” he told one interviewer. “I like to keep it up, keep it moving. I always liked people like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Santana. I don’t sing much anymore but I don’t let it bother me too much, I just concentrate on blowing harp more.”

Playing Style

 As a blues harp player, Cotton was renowned for his explosive style, precise choice of notes and tonal variety.

The New York Daily News described him as, “The greatest blues harmonica player of all time.” NPR Weekend Edition offered a similar tribute: “Conjure up a list of all-time great blues harmonica players, and high up on it you’ll see the name James Cotton.”

Primarily a diatonic harp player, Cotton tended to use various types of Seydel 1847 harmonicas, including the 1847 Silver, which can be heard on many of his live recordings.

Seydel 1847 Silver Blues Harmonica
Seydel 1847 Silver Blues Harmonica, as used by James Cotton


Cotton’s hard-blowing style has influenced generations of harmonica players, and his work with Muddy Waters was particularly significant in the impact it had on later rock bands, such as the Rolling Stones.

He is survived by his wife, Jacklyn Hairston Cotton, two daughters, a son, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


‘Harmonica’ most commonly used word in Gloucestershire

According to Oxford University Press (OUP) the most commonly used word in Gloucestershire is ‘Harmonica’. The OUP analysed 123,436 entries for the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Breakfast Show’s ‘500 Words’ short story competition. For the first time in the competitions history they used specialised software, every entry was analysed by an academic and technology team from Oxford University.

The results then found the top ten most commonly used words in each county’s entries in the competition.

In Gloucestershire the top 10 words used more than any other are:

  • harmonica
  • moles
  • sheriff
  • gangsters
  • blitz
  • ballerina
  • flowery
  • tracker
  • pepperoni
  • snowmen


It is always nice to have the harmonica (otherwise known as the “mouth organ”) recognised in any way, what better way, than to be the most commonly used word.


Harmonica used to help health of patients

Now here is something you maybe weren’t expecting, the Harmonica is being used to help the health of patients with breathing difficulties. The University of Michigan’s pulmonary rehabilitation program meets once a week for an hour to play the Harmonica. The class has people suffering with chronic lung conditions or breathing difficulties. They happen to be making music with the thing that they suffer with most, their breath.

While many in the medical profession refute the evidence that playing the harmonica improves lung capacity, that doesn’t stop patients from saying that it has helped them breath deeper and gain strength. Carlos Marinez a medical direct believes that breathing with pursed lips can decrease the amount of air that remains in the lungs, which can provide some relief from shortness of breath.

A former rehab coordinator at the University of Michigan started the harmonica class in 2003. She raised donations to buy instruments and music stands and found a patient’s wife to teach the class. Over the years, classes have ranged from six participants to as many as 20. Ms. Rubadeau, who suffers from lymphangioleiomyomatosis, or LAM, took over as teacher about 10 years ago.

Not only will the patients gain some benefit from using a harp to mimic the breathing exercises used in pulmonary rehab, but the social aspects of being part of the harmonica group can lift morale and become one of the only place patients go to outside their home.

There are a number of other harmonica groups for rehab patients, including at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif. The Harmonicats play at UCHealth in Aurora, Colo. At Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., Larry Rawdon, a retired Broadway cellist, has been teaching the harmonica to lung-transplant patients since 2013. And the COPD Foundation launched a Harmonicas for Health initiative in February, which has helped 25 treatment centres start classes.

It is wonderful to see classes popping up all over the USA to help patients.