What to say about the passing of Blues Legend James Cotton? Well, when a famous person dies, it's frequently said "We won't see his like again"....problem is, in this case, it's probably true. From the fields of Mississippi to Chicago backing Muddy Waters, through the rise of the blues to Rock and Roll prominence, playing with the Rolling Stones....unsure where we'd find this type of pedigree for a musical giant again. And a giant he surely was, combining virtuosity with showmanship (he loved standing offstage with his microphone, playing the first few bars of Cotton Boogie before letting the audience see him), and modern rhythms with respect for blues heritage (equally comfortable with exact quotes of Sonny Boy Williamson licks, and "giving the young people some dance music").
I first met James at the Tobacco Shed in Whately, a venue aptly named...it was so long and narrow that visuals of the stage actually reached the back before their accompanying sound. Blues acts were frequenting the Pioneer Valley, and I had made the brilliant decision(I thought) to provide real blues opening act support for them instead of letting the rock bands screw things up....in other words, I had decided to be a Bluesman, and offered my services to Blues venues at whatever the market would bear....which turned out to be:....not very much. But I didn't care, working up what I thought was a brilliant set that was SURE to impress the audience...and the master himself. However.....about 50 seconds into the James Cotton portion of the evening, I realized just how far over my head I was.....James' band absolutely DESTROYED us. A bit demoralized, I walked into the dressing room, desperate for guidance, which Cotton's drummer and bass player, Ken Johnson and Charles Calmese (still the greatest rhythm section I've ever seen) might provide....adding to my confusion, I found them embroiled in an argument about a missed cue during the set (which had seemed flawless from my perspective)....James walked in, and it was like dad settling a squabble among grade school siblings....complete with "he started it" and such. Cotton got them calmed down, and they did give me some pointers. Later, James came up to me with 6 hot dogs in his beefy hands. "I saw your check while I was getting mine, and you better take these before your band starves to death!", he said. That was the start of a beautiful friendship. A couple of gigs later, Matt "Guitar" Murphy's Fender Twin broke, and we loaned him an amp (might have been Henry Spadoni's), and steered him to a local repair shop, after which I was on the guest list for a LOT of James Cotton shows. After Johnson and Calmese left the band, I watched him build up another dynamite group with Ray "Killer" Allison on drums....Kenny, who had settled in Greenfield, brought them in to eat at the Dove's Nest. (He also occasionally recruited me to play in his Valley Blues all-star band). Still later, when his voice began to fail, Cotton did a duet for part of the show, then brought out the opening act to back him (guess who?) on an electric closing set. All of us here in the Valley were tremendously influenced by this brilliant, yet gentle blues genius. Have already altered the new Wildcat album to include a James Cotton tribute....it wasn't that hard to arrange, since we all knew his stuff backwards. Hope we come close to doing it justice