Updated: May 10, 2013 12:41PM
Like most of the musicians who launched national careers from the Sun Records studio in Memphis, James Cotton was well seasoned by the time he arrived.
Later a Chicago fixture, Cotton spent his boyhood in the 1940s living and working with bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. The harmonica legend took Cotton everywhere — to his radio gigs in West Memphis, to family outings with Williamson’s brother-in-law, Howlin’ Wolf — and Cotton, now a harp legend himself, made the most of his apprenticeship.
“No lessons. I just watched and learned,” Cotton, 77, said in a recent interview.
Cotton already had been inside the Memphis Recording Service (later to become Sun), adding harmonica to Wolf’s Chess recording “Saddle My Pony,” when Sam Phillips called him back to record his own songs. He was nearly 18 when he got that call in 1953.
He wasn’t going to let anything blow it.
“Sam said, ‘Be here on Wednesday.’ I went in. He said, ‘You have some songs you wrote?’ I said, ‘I’ve got a few.’ He put us together a three-piece combo, but the drummer didn’t show up that day,” Cotton said. “So I found a beer box, turned it upside down, made a drum out of it. It was beyond bare bones.”
So on “Straighten Up Baby” and “Oh Baby,” that’s Cotton on drums (boxes), too.
The records didn’t get Cotton out of his job driving a truck — at least not right away.
A few months later, Muddy Waters came through Memphis. Harp players Junior Wells and Little Walter had left Waters’ band, so he hunted down Cotton.
“I didn’t believe it was him,” Cotton said of Waters’ initial overture. “That seat he had to fill of Little Walter’s was a hot seat.”
That night’s Muddy gig on Beale Street led to Cotton following the band back to Chicago, where he became a fixture in the burgeoning blues community — and learned how to play for an urban crowd. “Coming from the South, we were all playing the blues, you know,” he said. “But Chicago blues was more slick, I should say, more smooth. They took all the bumps out of the road, smoothed it out. It wasn’t country blues. It was big-city blues.”
While other Chicago bluesmen later mingled with rockers like the Rolling Stones, Cotton’s blend of backwoods and big-city led him to touring and recording gigs with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin.
His latest album continues that trend, bringing a newer generation of bluesy rockers into the studio. “Cotton Mouth Man,” out May 7 on Alligator Records, includes guest turns by Gregg Allman, Ruthie Foster, Warren Haynes and Delbert McClinton, plus old friends Joe Bonamassa and Keb Mo.
“I feel like this is the best thing we ever did,” Cotton said of the new album, recorded in Nashville with Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi, George Thorogood). “People pretty much came out of the woodwork wanting to be on it. It really touches my heart.”
“Cotton Mouth Man” also closes with Cotton singing his own “Bonnie Blue.” Since a bout with throat cancer several years ago, Cotton has let others do the singing on his albums. His remaining voice is a hoarse, hard whisper. Interviews (including ours) are assisted by Cotton’s wife, Jacklyn. His harmonica-huffing pipes, however, have not been affected.
“I play a lot better than I talk,” he assured. “Come out and see!”
Chicagoans have two chances to do that in the coming weeks. Days after the release of “Cotton Mouth Man,” Cotton headlines on the North Side at 7:30 p.m. May 10 at the Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse ($35, 773-381-4554, maynestage.com). He’ll be back a month later at the Chicago Blues Festival, part of the “Chicago Blues: Old School, New Millennium” show at 8 p.m. June 9 at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park (free, chicagobluesfestival.us).