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James Cotton, Giant Of The Blues Harmonica, Dies At 81

Legendary harmonica player James Cotton, who died aged 81 after a 72-year-long career.
Christopher Durst
Courtesy Alligator Records
Legendary harmonica player James Cotton, who died aged 81 after a 72-year-long career.

NPR's Scott Simon spoke to James Cotton in 2013. Hear an encore of their conversation at the audio link.

James Cotton, one of the foremost blues harmonica players of the 20th century, died Thursday of pneumonia while being treated at St. David's Medical Center in Austin, Texas. He was 81 years old.

A note from Cotton's label, Alligator Records, confirmed his passing.

The Grammy Award-winning Cotton was born July 1, 1935, on a Mississippi cotton plantation and began playing the harmonica at age 9. As a teenager, he was mentored by Sonny Boy Williamson II, toured with Howlin' Wolf and recorded sessions at the legendary Sun Records studio. Starting at the age of 20, Cotton spent 12 years on the road with Muddy Waters and was featured on Waters' records At Newport 1960.

Cotton formed The James Cotton Band in 1966, eventually drawing him into the orbit of the new era through collaborations with, among many others, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin.

His status cemented, Cotton's accolades began to pile up — a Grammy in 1996 for his album Deep In the Blues, a 2010 all-star tribute concert at New York's Lincoln Center, and the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal's 2015 B.B. King award.

Cotton is survived by his wife Jacklyn Hairston Cotton, daughters Teresa Hampton and Marshall Ann Cotton, and son James Patrick Cotton. He also leaves behind numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Cotton explained his life best, in an interview with NPR in 2013: "I guess I was born with the blues, and I don't know nothing else but the blues."

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