Bluesman James Cotton has lived the kind of life they make movies about.
He toiled on a Mississippi plantation from earliest childhood, found himself orphaned at age 9, practically was raised by blues master Sonny Boy Williamson II and flourished as a sideman to Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Every chapter of his life, really, tells a story about the birth of the blues, its maturation and its critical – if somewhat marginalized – position in American culture today.
But Cotton tells that tale more explicitly and eloquently than ever in his newest recording, "Cotton Mouth Man" (Alligator Records), an autobiographical album that traces his journey from a harsh childhood in the Mississippi Delta to triumph in Chicago to his current, exalted status as a 77-year-old blues legend now living in Austin, Tex.
"This album means everything to me," says Cotton, who performs the music from "Cotton Mouth Man" for the first time in concert Friday evening at the Mayne Stage. "It's good music. It's just my heart."
And soul. Listen to Cotton's harmonica playing on the album – gritty, gutsy, ferociously uninhibited – and you're hearing what great blues harp work is all about. No wonder they call him "Superharp." And though Cotton mostly gave up singing after surgery for throat cancer in 1994, he growls into the microphone once again in "Bonnie Blue," the last cut on the album and its most searing.
"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."
As are we, for Cotton – who created these songs with record producer Tom Hambridge and others – lays it all out. From the loss of his parents to his jobs as iceman and truck driver, from his arrival in Chicago in 1954 to his 12-year gig with Muddy Waters, he holds nothing back.
"I was born in Mississippi – it was a hard life," says Cotton. "It was really hard. We didn't have much of nothing. I tried to get across (on the album) that I came up the hard way."
His mother attempted to play harmonica for him at his bedside at night, mimicking the sounds of a train or a chicken or whatever, inspiring Cotton to do the same. Once he heard Williamson (also known as Rice Miller) on the radio, he realized what the instrument really could do and started to mimic him. Cotton's uncle took the orphaned boy to the great blues harpist when Cotton was 9, and the child spent the next six years at the foot of the master.
What did he learn from Williamson?
"How to chase women, how to drink and how to play the blues," says Cotton. "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."
That genius clearly rubbed off, for by age 15 Cotton was on his own, working Beale Street in Memphis and environs, recording for Sun Records and traveling with Howlin' Wolf for two years in the early 1950s. But it wasn't further harp technique that Cotton acquired from Wolf.