When James Cotton left the ranks of the Muddy Waters Blues Band in 1966, the harmonica virtuoso had little trouble assembling an all-star cast of his own. The result was the James Cotton Blues Band—an outfit that has since achieved worldwide recognition as one of the tightest and most influential blues outfits ever assembled. The 35th Anniversary Jam is a celebration of this group's longstanding success, with both friends and fans coming together to join the party.
With the help of producer Rande Labbe, Cotton invited a number of top-ranking blues singers to record with his working band—guitarist Mike Williams, pianist Dave Maxwell, bassist Noel Neal and drummer Per Hansen. The festivities include the seasoned vocal stylings of Koko Taylor, Bobby Rush, Syl Johnson, Ronnie Hawkins, Lucky Peterson, Maria Muldaur, KimWilson, Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Neal. Add guitarists Tab Benoit, G.E. Smith and Jimmie Vaughn, and the James Cotton 35th Anniversary Jam turns out to be the biggest, baddest blues bash on either side of the Mississippi—a satisfying followup to his earlier appearances on two Telarc compilations—Superharps (CD-83472) and A Tribute to Howlin' Wolf (CD-83427)—as well as his own Fire Down Under the Hill (CD-83497), released on Telarc in 2000.
The star of the show is the venerable James Cotton, one of the best of the modern Chicago harmonica players with direct links to the blues' storied past. Born in Tunica, Mississippi, in 1935, Cotton fell under the spell of the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson at the tender age of nine and quickly became his protege. Over the course of six years, Cotton lived, worked and traveled with Williamson, eventually assimilating many of his signature licks. Cotton played and recorded with Howlin' Wolf and Willie Nix in Memphis until 1954, when Muddy Waters passed through town looking for a harpist. Cotton landed the gig, and worked with Muddy for the next 12 years—on the road and in the studio, including many of Muddy's seminal Chess sesions.
When Cotton eventually left the Muddy Waters Band in 1966 to strike out on his own, he secured a contract with Verve and recorded four albums for them. With the Muddy Waters Band on his resume, Cotton was able to cross over into the burgeoning blues-rock market of the day. He performed at both Fillmores (East and West), as well as at many major rock festivals in the late '60s. He also worked with blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter through the '70s and '80s. Cotton was awarded a Grammy for the 1996 album, Deep in the Blues.
The 35th Anniversary Jam is in many ways a summary statement by James Cotton, capturing the highlights of his rich history and punctuating it by including many of today's most popular blues performers. With Kenny Neal on vocals, Cotton pays tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson on the late harpist's "Don't Start Me Talking," a rollicking blues number that gives Cotton ample room to show off his own skills as a master harpist. Cotton's songwriting talents are very much in evidence as all but one of the remaining eleven tunes are original compositions. The album's closer, "Blues for the Hook" (dedicated to recently deceased blues titan John Lee Hooker), features Cotton trading licks with guitarist Jimmie Vaughn—and delivering some of his most nuanced and expressive playing ever recorded.
Bringing together the past and the present in a way that few bluesman can, James Cotton bridges the decades in his 35th Anniversary Jam, a celebration of the life and work of one of our most beloved blues greats.