When I was just starting out playing harp in the very early 70s as a 15-year-old wet behind the ears teenager, my brother Gary and his eclectic record collection would prove to have a permanent effect on my musical path.
A couple records in that gold mine of a record collection were James Cotton’s “Cut You Loose” and “Chicago/The Blues/Today” a compilation album on Vanguard that had a couple of James Cotton’s songs on it. One of them was “Rocket 88.” Man, I couldn’t get enough of that jewel. James is just killin’ it from the get go on this track and the band too. I later learned that Ike Turner was the songwriter.
Jame’s signature brilliant cupping along with fat tone and energetic phrasing make it an instant classic. Have a listen…
Those records are indelibly burned into my mind. I still perform Cotton’s version of “Rocket 88″ to this day.
When I was 17 I started a band with the late great guitarist Steve Samuels, a Sacramento Blues Hall of Fame member. Steve was born with his left arm cut off just past the elbow. I was going to say he was born with a disability but that wasn’t the case at all. Steve could rip on that Strat just like Albert King. We called him Lefty.
The story goes, his older brother Andy, a very successful guitarist at the time too, and Steve only had one guitar when growing up, so Steve would just turn the guitar over and play the guitar with the high strings on top a la Jimi Hendrix. I’ll get into some Steve Samuels stories at a later date.
Our band was called Nite Owl Express and we opened shows at a fairly big club called Crabshaw Corner. It was named after Elvin Bishop’s nickname Pig Boy Crabshaw. We often opened for some blues greats such as Albert King, Luther Allison and of course the legendary James Cotton.
In 1972, we were all at sound check in the afternoon, James’ band and ours. After the sound check, we were hanging out backstage waiting to get fed. I happened to have what seemed to be the biggest cold sore ever on my bottom lip. James saw it and in that loud, raspy voice said, “What’s wrong with your lip, boy?” I’m totally mortified and answer a cold sore, sir. He asks, “Ya know what causes that?” Me, “No, sir”. And now everybody is listening as James was a very loud, boisterous, type fellow and he says, “Ya been eating too much pussy, boy!!”
Everybody cracked up and I was in a daze that James Cotton was even speaking with me. None of it made any sense but it seemed to be very funny to everyone at the time.
Fast forward to 1994 in Hollywood. I get word that the James Cotton Band featuring Matt “Guitar” Murphy will be playing at the newly opened House of Blues nightclub. I knew some of the crew working the club so I got me and my girl Heather in. We’re tripping on Magic Mushrooms and the show was off the hook. (read more about Matt).
We make our way upstairs to the private bar where the backstage/dressing room is just across the hall. Somehow I talk our way in and the place is jumpin’! I see James across the room and I work my way over and wait for my moment. Finally, I get him one on one and relate the cold sore story and HE REMEMBERS! He shouts across the room to Matt Murphy to come over. “Ya gotta hear this!” So the muscle-bound Guitar Murphy comes over and James relates the story and we all have a good laugh. He asks if I’ve got any blow and I say no but I have some mushrooms and he sticks his hand out and I fill his hand with them. I end up copping some blow for us and we’re off to the races laughing, joking, and playing harp together and partying until dawn. It was just us three when we walked out of there with the sky just starting to light up.
He gave me one of his Marine Band Harps which I still have to this day. It’s an F harp and it is interesting because it still has the black paint on it where James wrote a “C” and an “F” on it with some kind of black paint. Harp players will recognize it as the 2nd position.
Still plays real good too.
RIP Brother James.