At the time of writing in early 2014, blues harmonica player James Cotton is celebrating his seventieth year in the entertainment business, and during this long career he has worked with most of the famed blues musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. Born on July 1st 1935, he first encountered the sound of a mouth harp from his mother's playing. His love of the instrument was increased as he heard more of its range on the radio from Rice Miller's (aka Sonny Boy Williamson II) playing. A childhood Christmas present of a 15c harmonica set him on his way, and as a nine year old he bravely linked up with Miller who mentored him until the start of the fifties. As a teenager he began to host a radio show on Memphis' KWEM, and in 1952 first recorded for Sun Records backing up Howling' Wolf. Sun's Sam Phillips was impressed enough to give him his own shot in 1954 when he recorded four songs, including an early version of what would become his signature tune ‘Cotton Crop Blues’. This CD leads off with his 1966 version of the same song.
After both Miller and Wolf had moved on from the still young Cotton's orbit, Muddy Waters arrived in town looking for a harmonica player for his band. Cotton got the job for live work, though Chess Records still insisted on using Little Walter on record for some time to come. He stayed with Muddy's travelling show for eleven years until 1966, when he was asked by producer Samuel Charters to record tracks for his three-volume Vanguard Records set “Chicago/The Blues/Today!” The first five tracks here are from that session, with all being five driving examples of his talent, including a very strong cover of Jackie Brenston's famed ‘Rocket 88’. The success of these recordings gave him the confidence to leave Muddy Waters and start up his own James Cotton Blues Band, and tracks 6-15 here are the entirety of their 1968 album “Cut You Loose!”.
While some fans may expect that a sixties Blues Band album led by a singing harmonica player might lead to some similarity between tracks will get a very pleasant surprise as there is variety aplenty here. Just as there was fine light and shade on the earlier first five tracks, the full band album varied tremendously without any diminution of quality. Opening with the riffy mid-tempo ‘The River's Invitation’, there are slow blues tracks like ‘Coast Blues’ and ‘Slippin' And Slidin'’, the oft-covered ‘Got To Get You Off My Mind’, and the earthy and funky title track. James gives a great vocal performance on the standard ‘Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do’, with the surprise coming with the extended band jazzy workout on ‘Negative 10-4’, a fine multi-sectioned instrumental showing off their playing skills. There is also a bonus previously unreleased track ‘The Next Time You See Me’, which features James in fine vocal form on a great rocker. It was obvious that as a band leader he was able to drive it forward without overpowering his players, making these fine examples of his sixties work.