Conjure up a list of all-time great blues harmonica players, and high up on it you'll see the name James Cotton.
Cotton's music begins at the source: He was born in Tunica, Miss., and started playing harp at the age of 9, learning directly from Sonny Boy Williamson II. He eventually made his way to Chicago, where he played for a dozen years in Muddy Waters' band before he struck out on his own.
James Cotton is now in his 69th year of performing. Throat cancer has captured his singing voice, but his harmonica continues to wail. Or, as he tells it: "The voice is gone, but the wind is still there."
Cotton's latest album on Alligator Records is called Cotton Mouth Man. It features guest appearances by — among others — Gregg Allman, Delbert McClinton and Keb' Mo'. NPR's Scott Simon spoke with Cotton and Keb' Mo' about making the new album; click the audio link on this page to hear their conversation.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Conjure up a list of all-time great blues harmonica players and high on up you're going to hear the name James Cotton.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: James Cotton's music begins at the source. He was born in Tunica, Mississippi and started playing harp at the age nine, learning directly from Sonny Boy Williamson II. He eventually made his way to Chicago, where he played for a dozen years in Muddy Waters' band before he struck out on his own. James Cotton is now in his 69th year of performing. Throat cancer has captured his singing voice, but his harmonica continues to wail. His latest album on Alligator Records is called "Cotton Mouth Man." It features guest appearances by, among others, Gregg Allman, Delbert McClinton and Keb' Mo'. James Cotton joins us now from the studios of member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Cotton.
JAMES COTTON: I'm so glad to be here with you.
SIMON: And we also welcome, in our studios in New York, Keb' Mo'. Keb' Mo', thank you very much for being with us.
KEB' MO': Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
SIMON: Mr. Cotton, you're 77, right?
COTTON: Yeah, I am.
SIMON: Well, you suck the reeds right out of your harp. How do you do that?
COTTON: Well, wind. The voice is gone but the wind's still there.
SIMON: The voice is going but the wind's still there.
COTTON: Yeah. The wind's still blowing.
SIMON: The wind's still blowing. Keb' Mo', you have vocals and guitar on a couple of tracks. What brings you to this project?
KEB' MO': Well, to work with Mr. Cotton is, you're working with a real blues man. And it's an honor because I remember I first met Mr. Cotton - he probably doesn't remember - I first met him in the early '70s in Connecticut at a club called The Shabu.
SIMON: I didn't know there were blues clubs in Connecticut.
KEB' MO': I don't know if it's a blues club. It was a club.
SIMON: A club. OK.
KEB' MO': Called the Shabu Inn with...
COTTON: Yeah, well, we made a blues club out of it.
SIMON: You made a blues club out of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: Well, we have you singing, Keb' Mo', on this track, "Mississippi Mud."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI MUD")
KEB' MO': (Singing) I'm in limbo breaking ground. When the earth was bone dry, digging and sweating underneath that blazing Delta sky. You put your seeds in the ground and pray for rain, all for the chance to do it all again. It's in my soul and in my bones, that old Mississippi mud.
SIMON: Is it - can I ask, Keb' Mo' - a little intimidating to play alongside a blues legend?
KEB' MO': I wouldn't say intimidating. I would say it would be - just it's a huge honor and a huge responsibility to sing on a James Cotton track, you know. I felt on that track like I was representing the voice of James Cotton, you know. I was trying to channel his spirit in the song, his story, and sing as if I were him.
COTTON: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI MUD")
KEB' MO': (Singing) That old Mississippi Mud.
SIMON: May as I ask you, Mr. Cotton, does it hurt for you to speak?
COTTON: No, it's - it don't hurt. But the words don't come out plainly all the time.
SIMON: The words don't come out plainly all the time.
COTTON: No, no, they don't.
SIMON: Keb' Mo', you're on another cut called "Wasn't My Time to Go." What can you tell us about this tune?
KEB' MO': Well, it's kind of an autobiographical journey through James Cotton's life, about his trials and tribulations and his brushes with disaster. And he came out smelling like a rose, so to speak.
KEB' MO': And so it's him saying, like, putting towards his sense of faith in life and his gratitude toward being here.
COTTON: Yeah, I'm really glad about that.
KEB' MO': Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WASN'T MY TIME TO GO")
KEB' MO': (Singing) Father went first, then my sweet mother, then it was just me, my sister and my brother. Before too long, they were up and gone. I had to make my way on my own. I guess it wasn't my time, wasn't my time to go. How I got this far, I'll never know. It just wasn't my time to go.
COTTON: I guess I was born with the blues. And I don't know nothing else but the blues.
KEB' MO': When you get one thing right in life, you know.
KEB' MO': Yeah. That's all you need to do, is get one thing right in life. You know, you get a whole bunch of things and that one thing right that you get in life. But if you do that one thing and you put your heart into it, that makes it easy.
SIMON: So, Mr. Cotton, when you listen to Keb' Mo', do you have a sense that he's kind of saying what you would?
COTTON: Yeah, I think so. I know so. I can feel it. You know, it feels good to my soul.
KEB' MO': Yeah. I felt, it was really - it was just a very unique thing. I've guested on, like, records before and done things, you know, but this was really special because, you know, it was like, I've heard James Cotton sing, and when he was singing, he was an amazing singer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ROCKET 88")
COTTON: (Singing) You women have heard of jalopies, you heard noise they make, well, let me introduce my new Rocket 88. Yeah, it's straight, just won't wait. Everybody likes my Rocket 88. Baby, we'll ride in style, moving all along. A V8 motor, baby, it's modern design. Black convertible top and the girls don't mind. Sportin' with me riding all around town for joy...
KEB' MO': I will never be the vocalist that James Cotton, you know, was when he was singing, you know, but I did my best to really take on the task and to honor it, you know.
COTTON: You did it.
KEB' MO': Oh, thank you. That there - that's a million dollars right there. I think this is a testament to who the man is that when you take away a skill, as someone can do - it's like when Beethoven couldn't hear anymore, you know, like, I always think about, like, what if I couldn't play the guitar, you know. But when I do, I'd have to really lean more heavily on the spirit of what I'm doing. And, you know, who you are shines because when you strip away everything, you know, it's like who are you? So, I think Mr. Cotton without a voice, you're going to really see who he is now. And when he plays - I saw him. I had the pleasure to be on a show with Mr. Cotton in Switzerland and I saw him perform. And James leading that band - he drove it. He drove it with his harmonica and with his spirit.
SIMON: From WBEZ in Chicago, James Cotton. And from New York, Keb' Mo'. The new CD is called "Cotton Mouth Man." Gentlemen, thanks so much.
KEB' MO': Thank you.
COTTON: Thank you. Thank you, Keb' Mo'.
KEB' MO': Thank you, Mr. Cotton. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.