NEW YORK: Leading blues harmonica player James Cotton, who rose from poverty to introduce his instrument to the rock world, died Thursday. He was 81.
The Grammy-winning artist, who toured for more than 60 years even as throat cancer in the 1990s made him give up singing, died of pneumonia at a hospital in Austin, Texas, his publicist said in a statement.
Cotton made his name in Chicago as part of the Muddy Waters Band and by the 1960s his harmonica piqued the curiosity of the hippies who sought to explore the blues roots of rock.
He opened concerts for Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead and collaborated with Led Zeppelin.
The Dead had “never seen a man play the harp like that,” he said of his harmonica.
“And there was nobody playin’ music like they were playin’. It was a bit too loud for me, but I enjoyed it,” he told the Montreal Gazette in 2015.
He became a mentor to Paul Butterfield, one of the most prominent rockers to play harmonica, a partnership that Cotton credited with giving him a window to white audiences.
Cotton had grown up laboring on a plantation in Mississippi and was orphaned by age nine. But his mother had already introduced him to harmonica, using a cheap version to imitate the sounds of chickens and train.
He had heard pioneering blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II on the radio and was taken by an uncle to see the master, who took him under his wing.
Cotton later told the Chicago Tribune that Williamson taught him “how to chase women, how to drink and how to play the blues.”
“Anything he played today, I learned it tomorrow. He never said anything,” Cotton said.
Cotton, who lived his final years in Austin, released his last album in 2013, “Cotton Mouth Man,” a semi-autobiographical look at his roots. AFP