Cotton's candy for the ears

Grammy winner to perform Jan. 17 at Centennial Hall

Posted: Friday, January 16, 2009

You can feel the many emotions of the blues flow through the harmonica of Grammy-winner James "Superharp" Cotton when he gets on stage, said his wife and manager Jacklyn Hairston.

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Courtesy Of Perseverance Theatre
Courtesy Of Perseverance Theatre

"It's an emotional thing," she said. "Anyone who's into the blues will understand what I'm saying. It's such an art form and there's not too many people doing it anymore."

Cotton, a living legend of the storied musical genre, will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 17, at Centennial Hall. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $18 for students and seniors, and $10 for ages 5 and younger.

During a phone interview from Texas, Cotton, 73, says he still loves to play the blues for people across the country after more than six decades in the business.

"I'm on the road all the time, pretty much," he said, adding that people can expect to see a top-notch concert on Saturday night. "We do a good show and I work hard."

Born in Tunica, Miss., on July 1, 1935, Cotton's name and abilities are synonymous with the blues. His career really began in the 1940s when he was introduced to Sonny Boy Williamson and began touring the juke joints of the Deep South with the blues legend. Being too young to perform in the clubs with Williamson, Cotton would often perform and earn tips on the steps of clubs throughout Mississippi and Arkansas.

As a teenager, Cotton befriended blues legend Howlin' Wolf and began touring with him from Missouri to Mississippi, often doing the driving along Highway 61. By 15 he had cut his recordings at Sun Records and a couple of years later had his own 15-minute radio show in West Memphis, Ark.

During a break from his regular happy hour gig at a small lounge in 1954, Cotton was approached by Muddy Waters and was asked to perform with his band. Cotton would go on to be Waters' harp player for the next 12 years, recording such songs as "Sugar Sweet" and "Close to You."

Hairston says Cotton remains one of the hardest working bluesmen in the business.

"The music is the basic music from Mississippi," she said. "It's a little more modern than it used to be, because he's changed with the times, but what he does is he gives a people a fine dose of what it was back than because of his history with Sonny Boy and Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. It's a beautiful show. Every night it's new for me."

Playing the blues is not all about being sad, Cotton said.

"There are sad blues and happy blues," he said. "People come because they want to be there, and forget about all their worries."

Although recognized for his talents and abilities for decades, the critical accolades began to flow for Cotton in the 1980s and 90s with multiple Grammy nominations for his recordings. In 1994, throat cancer resulted in surgery and radiation treatment that forever altered his voice. Nonetheless, Cotton continued to record and tour and in 1996 was bestowed with the Grammy award for traditional blues album for "Deep in the Blues."

Just last year, Cotton toured in eight countries and played from Hawaii to the East Coast, Hairston said. Along with admiration for the music, she said Cotton loves his fans.

"I'm happy just meeting people that enjoy themselves, that means a lot to me," he said.

Cotton has been dazzling his fans with the blues for 65 years this year, she said.

"As a person who used to be a fan 18 years ago and not being with him, I was always so excited to see him on stage and hear his music that is was a natural high," she said. "It was a beautiful thing."

The Juneau Arts & Humanities Council wanted to bring Cotton to the capital for an exciting concert with a living legend, executive director Nancy DeCherney said.

"This is a big concert, I really think it is," she said. "There are a lot of people that saw him when he played with Muddy Waters, or have recollections from way back. He's a big name in the business and we need to see these living legends while they are still available."

DeCherney said Cotton's blues should be a good way to get picked up during a cold and weary Alaskan evening.

"I think this will knock their socks off," she said. "This is going to be really, really fun."

"I would tell them to listen to the blues, try to stay warm," Cotton said. "They'll see a good blues show, they have my word on that."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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