Within a few hours, the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival provided James Cotton both a career milestone and a career setback.
As a member of Muddy Waters’ band, Cotton had performed to a large, white audience that had only recently begun to embrace the blues. Meanwhile, his lively, up-front harmonica playing established Cotton as a worthy successor to Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs, who had become a legend with Waters.
“And then I got fired that same day,” Cotton said. “I got fired from the band.”
While the album recorded from that show — “At Newport 1960” — would become a major influence on bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, one particular song had not gone well.
“Muddy did a song — ‘I’ll Put a Tiger in Your Tank’ — and he forgot the words,” Cotton said. “And he got mad and told me, ‘You messed up my song.’ I said, ‘I didn’t mess it up — you messed up your own song.’ He said, ‘I’m Muddy Waters.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care who you are — you did not say the words.’ ”
Peeved at his youngest band member’s lack of subordination, Waters sent him packing. But a few days later, he heard recordings from the show and realized his flubbed lyrics had indeed caused the band to stray.
“When he heard the song, he called me up and said, ‘Meet me at the studio tomorrow at 2 o’clock,’ ” Cotton recalled. “We have to do some of this stuff over.’ ”
Cotton, who performs with Elvin Bishop and Paul Thorn at Cal Poly next week, would continue to perform with Waters for six more years, before going solo himself. But it wasn’t the first time he’d worked for a legendary bluesman.
Born in Mississippi, his affection for the blues began when he started listening to Sonny Boy Williamson at age 6.
“He had this radio show — station KFFA — in Arkansas, and I used to listen to the radio show,” he said.
By the time he was 9, both of his parents had died of strokes, and he moved in with his uncle, driving a tractor to help pay the bills.
“We’d get paid every two weeks — $3 a day — for driving a tractor,” Cotton recalled.
Cotton received a harmonica as a Christmas gift when his mother was still alive. When his uncle heard him play the blues, he knew Cotton was destined for something else.
“He looked at me and said, ‘This ain’t no place for you,’ ” Cotton said. “So he took me to Sonny Boy.”
The uncle, Wylie Green, instructed Cotton to tell Williamson he was an orphan, which he did.
“So I pulled out my harp and played ... and that kind of got his attention.”
Green managed to convince Williamson to take Cotton in. And for the next six years, Cotton became both a ward and student. When Cotton was 15, though, Williamson followed the wife that had left him to Milwaukee, leaving Cotton to head his band.
“We didn’t last too long,” Cotton said of the band.
But Cotton, who had done some radio work of his own, quickly found more opportunities, including stints with Howlin’ Wolf’s band in the early 1950s.
“At the station, they had a conversation and asked me, do I want to make a record?” he said. “I said, ‘I’d love to. I didn’t know what you had to do. This was before Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis — any of those guys. But I went in and made a 45 for Sun Records: ‘Cotton Crop Blues.’ ”
Playing harmonica, singing and drumming on a cardboard box, Cotton released the record and a few others. But his solo career would take a backseat the day Waters came calling.
Waters asked Cotton to join his all-star band, hoping he could re-create Little Walter’s parts. Eventually, Cotton convinced Waters that he had his own style — something he famously proved on the song “Got My Mojo Working.”
Little Walter had recorded the studio version with Waters in 1956. But before Newport, Waters decided to speed up the song. Arranged by pianist Otis Spann, the tune appealed to an audience that had quickly fallen for the uptempo sounds of rock ’n’ roll.
That ramped-up live version — driven by Cotton’s frenetic harp — eventually became a signature tune.
“It turned out to be the biggest hit Muddy ever had,” Cotton said.
While Waters had influenced rock bands, by the mid-’60s, Cotton in turn was influenced by them. So he went solo in 1966, playing a hybrid of blues and soul.
“The music had changed, and I figured I did all I could do with Muddy,” Cotton said. “That was his music, so I figured I’d better get my own band so I could play what I wanted to play.”
After releasing his first album in 1967, Cotton wound up opening for acts like Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead. But eventually, he wound up returning to more traditional blues.
His latest album, “Cotton Mouth Man,” shares some of his life story with guests including Greg Allman and Keb Mo. While Cotton was once the lead vocalist in his own band, a bout with throat cancer in the ’90s relegated his voice to a throaty whisper, forcing him to once again leave singing to others. But his harmonica playing has never waned.
Jacklyn Cotton, his manager and wife of 23 years, said he has a harmonica in every room of the house.
“Sometimes he’ll be in another room and play,” she said. “It charms me. I’ll hear him play something I’ve never heard before.”
He still tours and records regularly. And today he will be presented the Lifetime Achievement Award from the governor of Mississippi.
While Cotton was forced to grow up without parents, he’ll never part with his harp.
“It’s my life — in fact, a mother, a father, a sister and brother to me now,” he said. “Me and the harmonica belong together.”
IF YOU GO
Elvin Bishop with James Cotton and Paul Thorn
7:30 p.m., Feb. 27
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.