Tell me about how hard times were and how the blues began?
I worked on the farm-- plowed mules, shucked corn, picked cotton--anything you could do on a farm was all there was to do. And while doing that people strike up a song, sing a song and make their day go a little bit better.
What was Memphis like for you as a boy?
There were a lot of clubs that I couldn't go in - bein' a kid. So I worked in the park at the shoe shine box. But everytime I'd get a chance I used to slip in. I used to get on my knees and crawl through the door right through people's legs into 500 Beale Street, the Hippodrome, Rachel's Hotel on 11th Street. I saw Ruth Brown and Elvis Presley before he was Elvis Presley.
When did you first know Hubert [Sumlin]?
I don't know what year it was, but I was about fifteen. I had this radio show over in West Memphis. Hubert used to play at Sanctified Church. It was a typical Saturday night. I was asking around if anyone had seen our guitar player. Some guy says he knows another guitar player right over there and it was Hubert. He was standin' there with his hip boots on and I said, "You play the guitar?" He said, "Oh yeah, I play it." So we got him a guitar and he made a capo out of a pencil and a piece of chord string and put it on there and got it tuned up. Then he looked up at me and said, "I'm ready." He stayed with me three years and did some gigs with Howlin' Wolf. Then Howlin' Wolf moved to Chicago and sent back for Hubert.
Did Sonny Boy [Williamson] ever sit down and teach you, or did you just watch?
I just watched. If he played it tonight, I played it tomorrow. I watched everything and in the end I wanted to be just like Sonny Boy. I watched every move he made, every word he said.
He took you around to jukes and clubs?
Well, it wasn't really clubs - it was people's houses. They'd take out a bed or something. They'd cook some fish and corn, drink some whiskey and have a party that night and put the bed back later and go to sleep. So I started playin' the house parties.
What was your first recording with Sam Phillips?
"Cotton Club Blues" was the first one on my own. When I wrote that song I never thought I'd get a chance to record it. I had a radio show and Phillips called me up one day and said, "Would you like to do some recording?" So I came over and did "Cotton Club Blues", "Straight Now Baby", "Hold Me in Your Arms", and "Oh Baby".
When did you go up to Chicago?
In 1954. I was over in West Memphis and Muddy Waters had been down through Georgia and Florida and had little Junior Wells with him. Somehow Junior had quit the band and they heard I was in Memphis somewhere. I had a job driving a truck, but they sat down outside the place I was working waiting on me to show up. Muddy walked up to me and said, "Hello, my name is Muddy Waters." I yelled, "And my name's Jesus Christ!" 'cause I didn't believe him. He said, "I've come to give you a job. I'm playing at 500 Beale Street tomorrow night at the Hippodrome. Be there at 8:00." I showed up and Jimmy Rogers, Otis Spann, Jim Edmonton, and Bob Bradley were in his band. Jimmy Rogers showed me where to put my amplifier and we went up and played two songs and I said, "Well, this is it." So I went with him to Chicago and stayed there twelve years.
Was Muddy a tough band leader?
He was. He wanted to hear whatever was on the record on the stage every night. I was there for a couple of years before I got to be on the albums. Muddy wanted me to be just like Little Walter. I told him, "Hey, I'll never be Little Walter, but I can play your music, so you've got to give me a chance." I guess he heard that.
You recorded some of his biggest hits.
"Mojo" was one of the biggest he ever had. "Sugar Sweet", "Trouble No More", "Forty Days, "Forty Nights"-- some of the biggest he ever had.
More about James Cotton
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