James Cotton says he never gave a thought to becoming part of the Chicago blues boom of the 1950s. Then, as quickly as Saturday night turns into Sunday morning, he was on the road north from Memphis in the illustrious company of Muddy Waters.
It was different for Buddy Guy. Ensconced in Baton Rouge, La., he dreamed about the big city and its music, practiced his guitar and saved his money until, one day in 1957, he boarded a train heading north "to find Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and the rest of the blues players I admired so much."
Cotton's acceptance into the Chicago blues scene was immediate--after all, Waters had handpicked the Mississippi-born teen - ager to come to Chicago and fill the harmonica slot in his band that previously had belonged to such masters as Little Walter Jacobs and Junior Wells.
Guy says his road was harder. Within a few months of his arrival in Chicago--33 years on, he can still tell you the date and time his train pulled in--he was broke and hungry and ready to call home and ask his mother to send him the fare back to Baton Rouge.
But Guy stayed in Chicago, and, as he tells the story, Muddy Waters had a lot to do with his decision not to make that call home for help.
Today, Guy, 53, and Cotton, 54, are still-active veterans of the '50s Chicago blues boom. They are part of a generation of players who began their lives on Southern farms and wound up in urban clubs, creating a brand of electric blues that has proved enduring in itself and crucial to the origins and development of rock 'n' roll. Both musicians continue to tour without letup--Cotton will lead his band tonight at Hamptons, and Guy plays Saturday at Bogart's and Tuesday at the Coach House.
Cotton may have had a fuller blues tutelage than anyone alive. Speaking recently from a tour stop Manchester, N.H., he recalled in a throaty, heavy-as-burlap voice how his mother taught him his first licks on the harmonica when he was a mere tot in Tunica, Miss. But Cotton said it was his uncle, Wylie Green, who first saw his precocious potential. According to Cotton, it was what he could do on a farm tractor--as much work as a grown man--that convinced his uncle that, even at age 9, the boy had the maturity to fend for himself in the world.
Since Cotton's real genius was for the harmonica, his uncle brought him to Helena, Ark., where blues harmonica player Aleck (Rice) Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson, performed on radio. Somehow, Cotton says, his uncle prevailed upon Williamson--the author of such future rock standards "One Way Out," (done by the Allman Brothers) and "Eyesight to the Blind" (incorporated by the Who into their rock opera, "Tommy")--to take the boy on as a ward. Cotton spent six years with Williamson, watching and learning.
At 15, Cotton struck out on his own and landed in West Memphis, Ark., on the outskirts of Memphis, Tenn. With his own band, he recorded for the famous Sun label that was soon to spawn the rock 'n' roll of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cotton also served a further apprenticeship as sideman to blues great Howlin' Wolf.
As for heading north to latch onto the burgeoning blues scene in Chicago, Cotton said, "I never thought of it in my life." Until, that is, Muddy Waters turned up one night in 1954 and offered him a job in his band.
"He came to this little beer joint where me and this guitar player were (performing) on a Saturday evening," Cotton recounted. Waters, needing a harmonica player to round out his band while on tour in Memphis, had been directed to Cotton.
"He said, 'I'm Muddy Waters,' and he said he wanted to give me a job." Cotton's first reaction was to look on this supposed benefactor with suspicion. Of course, he'd heard Muddy Waters on record. But he'd never seen Muddy Waters.
It wasn't until Cotton went to where Waters was playing that night that he became convinced.
"I saw the posters with his picture on 'em. I thought, 'Maybe this is the right cat.' I never dreamed I'd be going to Chicago or playing with Muddy Waters. But I played in Memphis (with Waters) that Saturday night, and that Sunday morning we were off to Chicago."
While it sounds as if Cotton had an easy accession to the Chicago blues, he in fact found himself in a nerve-racking position.
"Little Walter Jacobs was in Chicago, one of the greatest harmonica players that ever lived. There was a whole lot of pressure on me. I had to learn how to play harmonica all over again. It made a musician out of me."
Early on, Cotton said, Waters commanded him simply to replicate the famous harmonica parts that Jacobs had created on Waters' records. It wasn't until Cotton participated in some successful recording sessions that he found some leeway to forge his own identity.
"When we started to get hit records together, (Waters) had to respect it, because I wrote some of them," including "Trouble, No More" and "Sugar Sweet."