James Cotton is one of the best harmonica players in history and he learned his skills by ear. He performs at the Port Theatre Saturday (March 12).

James Cotton is one of the best harmonica players in history and he learned his skills by ear. He performs at the Port Theatre Saturday (March 12).

Blues career spans generations

The first sound James Cotton made on his harmonica was a freight train.

He was just a kid, growing up in the American south and copying the sounds his mom made on her harp.

But when he heard Sonny Boy Williamson on the radio, it opened up a music world Cotton never knew existed but one that he immediately sought a place in.

He learned Williamson’s theme song and learned it by ear, as he did with all music at the time. Cotton never took lessons – all his playing and songwriting was entirely self taught.

“I play what I hear,” Cotton said. “I play what I feel.”

Cotton was just nine years old when his parents died and Williamson became a mentor to the young harmonica player. Cotton would “open” Williamson’s shows, playing on the front steps of the bar or juke joint as he was too young to actually go inside.

After parting ways with Williamson, Cotton busked the streets of Memphis for tips. When he heard Howlin’ Wolf was playing nearby, he talked his way into the bar to play with the blues legend. The two hit the road together and Cotton learned about touring from the legend.

Soon recording, radio airplay and performances with the likes of Muddy Waters established Cotton as a legend in his own right. Throughout the 60s and 70s, when rock ‘n’ roll was king, Cotton played with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin.

Throat cancer nearly cut short not only Cotton’s music but also his life. But he’s still touring, releasing a new album last year, aptly titled Giant, which was nominated for a Grammy Award.

“If I quit playing, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Cotton said.

James Cotton performs at the Port Theatre Saturday (March 12), 7:30 p.m. Tickets $39.50. Please call 250-754-8550 or visit www.porttheatre.com.

arts@nanaimobulletin.com