Coming out of hibernation to post an interview with James “Superharp” Cotton, master of the blues harmonica and a great singer, who died on March 16th at 81. I had a chance to interview Cotton in 2012 for the program notes for a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. I don’t know nearly as much about blues history as I do about jazz, but I thought the conversation was interesting. Among other things, his remarks about wanting his harmonica to sound like a tenor saxophone. Here’s an edit.
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TP: How long have you had this current band?
JC: The current band that I have has been working with me about 20 years. Noel Neal I think is one of the best blues bass players in the business.
TP: Earlier, you used saxophone and piano, I think. When did you switch from that lineup to something more pared down with the guitars, bass and drum?
JC: I had the horn section for about four years, and there was problems carrying it on the road with everybody, and I broke the band down. So I have bass, guitar, and drums for the last eight years or so, I should say.
TP: Do you play the same repertoire all the time with this band, or do you switch things up?
JC: I switch things up.
TP: Because you’re famous for knowing tons and tons of songs.
JC: Well, we don’t do them all. But we do switch ‘em up sometimes. Sometimes we’ll do something different because of the way I feel that night. We’ll do something from everywhere.
TP: Do you still bring new songs into your band book?
JC: Yeah, I do that every year. We’ve got a CD coming out. I have new songs in there. One song has been recorded before, but the rest of it is brand-new. Although I didn’t write all of them.
TP: About how many songs have you written over the years?
JC: I don’t know. So many, I don’t know. Quite a few.
TP: I know that for a little under 20 years, for reasons of health, you’ve hardly done any singing, but you play harmonica all the time. People know solos you’ve done, those solos are famous, and hundreds of harmonica players might have memorized those solos. Do you try to play them differently every time?
JC: If it’s new. If it’s something I did before, I try to stay close to the pattern as I can.
TP: One thing I want to get to, because this is a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I wanted to ask you a bit about your attitude when you were a young musician to swing music, and rhythm-and-blues, and jazz of the time. Were you paying attention to, let’s say, Louis Jordan in the ‘50s, or other people who were bridging swing music and blues?
JC: Yeah. Back then I was listening to anything I could hear. If I heard it, I played it, or I tried to play it. Louis Jordan? I probably knew every tune Louis Jordan ever did. But I listened to about everybody I could. When you’re trying to learn something, you have a tendency to listen to use.
TP: Were you influenced in your approach to harmonica by other instruments?
JC: I try to make my harmonica sound like a tenor saxophone.
TP: Who were some of the tenor saxophone players you liked back in the day?
JC: Coltrane. I listened to James Moody. Uh…I can’t think of his name right now… I listened to quite a few horn players, because I wanted to have a different sound with my harmonica.
TP: How about singers? Everyone who knows you, knows you were apprenticed to Rice Miller and Howlin’ Wolf. But who were some of the other singers you checked out? During the days that you were singing, you had a lot of different approaches, and your voice was very flexible, went through a lot of flavors.
JC: B.B. King. John Lee Hooker. Lightnin’ Hopkins. Gatemouth Brown. Willie Mabon. I listened to everything that I could listen to with the music. I didn’t push none of it aside. I even listened to Elvis Presley when he was…you know, back in the day.
TP: I think I read an interview where you said you heard Elvis Presley before he was Elvis Presley.
JC: I did. I’d never seen him before that. Elvis used to come down to the Blue Monday party we had on Beale Street in Memphis, and he was the only white face there. He sat in and he wanted to listen.
TP: I guess you first started leading a band in 1950-51, when Rice Miller left his band to you. But full-time you’ve been leading a band about 45 years, just about? 1966?
TP: Did you pick up cues from any of your mentors as far as being a bandleader.
JC: Yeah. Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy, and Muddy Waters. I didn’t do all the things they did. I tried to leave all the bad things aside. Some was good, some was bad. I tried to pick up the good things, like treating the guys right, getting them paid right…and I found out one thing—if you don’t like somebody, you can’t play with them right.
TP: How much freedom do they have within the context of your band? You mentioned that during your first four years with Muddy Waters, he wanted you to play Little Walter’s solos note-for-note. (I know all your fans know this stuff.) Then you told him that you had to play your own sound. Is that something you also want from your musicians, that they play themselves, that they play their own sound?
JC: Well, they play what they feel is right for the band, not what somebody else played with the band. Because the other way they sounded is no longer with the band. We are here together.
TP: What do you think is your greatest or couple of greatest accomplishments as a bandleader?
JC: A guy like me, comes out of Mississippi, with the “Cotton Crop Blues,” man, and wins a Grammy—that makes me feel good.
TP: Do you have any favorite records from your output? Or are they all your favorites?
JC: They’re all favorites. See, I work on something when I like it. If I don’t like it, I won’t do it. Then it won’t come out. I’m still looking forward to playing. I’m 77 years old, and I’m still doing it. It still feels good. I don’t want to quit. I love what I’m doing, and I’m going to keep right on doing it. And I find something to do every day.
TP: I forgot to ask you one question pertaining to the number of songs that are in your repertoire. During the time when you were singing, how long did it take you to put your own stamp on a song? Could you get there right away? Did it take a long time to get it? How did you go back learning all those lyrics, and making them part of your soul?
JC: I guess I was blessed with that, too. Back in the day (it’s a little bit slower now), if I heard something one time, I knew it. You could play it one time, and I’d know it word-for-word. I was pretty good about putting lyrics together.
TP: How much are you touring these days? I was looking on your website, and it seems like you’re working quite a bit.
JC: Yes. We’re going all over the world. We’re going everywhere. I’m enjoying it.
TP: Do people all over the world respond to the blues in the same way?
JC: They respond everywhere I’m doing it. The people here, they’re going to hear the blues because they know what you’re talking about. But if you’re in Europe, they feel what you’re doing. They don’t understand what you’re saying, but they’ll applaud, holler for me to come back.