James Cotton, Grammy-Winning Blues Harmonica Player, Dies At 81

James Cotton poses for a portrait circa 1975.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

James Cotton poses for a portrait circa 1975. 

James Cotton, a Grammy Award-winning blues harmonica master whose full-throated sound backed such blues legends as Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Howlin' Wolf, has died at age 81.

A statement from Alligator Records, Cotton's label, says he died Thursday (March 16) of pneumonia at St. David's Medical Center in Austin.

Cotton, known as “Mr. Superharp,” was born on a cotton plantation in Tunica, Mississippi on July 1, 1935. He performed professionally since age 9 and went on to share stages with Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Santana, Steve Miller, Freddie King and many others. Cotton backed Muddy Waters in his landmark album At Newport on Chess Records. He would work with Waters many times through the years. 

After going solo in the 1960s, Cotton released almost 30 albums, including his 1996 Grammy Award-winning Verve album, Deep In The Blues. His most recent album, Cotton Mouth Man for Alligator Records in 2013, was nominated for a Grammy.

Cotton was honored by New York’s Lincoln Center in 2010 where Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland and others saluted him in an all-star concert. And in 2015, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal recognized Cotton and his decades-long contribution to the blues with their 2015 B.B. King Award.

Cotton is survived by his wife Jacklyn Hairston Cotton, daughters Teresa Hampton and Marshall Ann Cotton and son James Patrick Cotton, as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.