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June 2002

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James Cotton
The 35th Anniversary Jam
Telarc Records

Two reviews of this CD follow:

James Cotton - 35th Anniversary Jam In the royalty line of the blues, James Cotton was knighted long ago. At an early age, Tunica, Mississippi-born Cotton fell under the trance of Sonny Boy Williamson and became his protégé. In 1954, James was appointed as Muddy Waters' harpist. This gig lasted for the next 12 years. No longer content to play Little Walter riffs note for note, Cotton left the Muddy Waters Band and struck out as a solo act in 1966. By now a harmonica virtuoso, James had limited troubles putting together an all-star cast of his own. 

The 35th Anniversary Jam is a celebration of the James Cotton Band’s long-standing success. This fiery release is a welcome return to the High Compression era, and it’s easily the biggest, baddest blues bash on either side of the Mississippi. 

Of course when this disc arrived, I could not resist immediately opening it. An impressive number of guest musicians partake in the festivities. However, this is not one of those multi-guest CDs lacking in continuity. Each track has a distinct rhythm as defined by Cotton and his guests, thanks to the fact that the musicians were all present in the recording studio. Current bandmember David Maxwell is fantastic on the keys throughout the disc. Listen to them glisten on the opening track, "Don’t Start Me Talkin," where bassist Noel Neal’s brother, Kenny, handles the vocals. This is only one of two covers included in the 53 minute, 12 track set. 

On "The Creeper," Cotton’s steaming harmonica depicts an image of a train engine. This engine sounds like the happiest one on the train track. Everyone is sure to identify the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, and her sassy funk-blues on "I’ve Got A Feeling." Lucky Peterson’s vocals are richly marinated and served up spicy on "Cotton Crop Blues." Here, Lucky seems to take over the role of bandleader. None of the other animated guests work Cotton into such a frenzy. 

"Fatuation" is a classic twist on words from the original lover of "big, fat women," Bobby Rush. On this stripped down number, Cotton wails and shrieks his notes out to the point where you swear his harp will explode. Ear-piercing, wild harping continues on "How Long Can A Fool Go Wrong?" Your tweeters will be in agony and you will be in awe. Here, Shemekia Copeland sings with the force and confidence of someone who has been performing as long as Cotton. 

"Blues In My Sleep" is an astonishing and absolutely stunning slow blues masterpiece. Anyone who thinks TV-band musicians are not talented will be silenced forever. On this rousing tune, G.E. Smith proves he is a disciplined blues guitar god. Extremely confident core bandmembers Mike Williams (rhythm guitar) and Per Hanson (drums) are further joined by Tab Benoit, Ronnie Hawkins, Syl Johnson, Maria Muldaur, Jimmie Vaughan and Kim Wilson. 

This disc is living proof that Sir Superharp isn’t slowing down quite yet. In fact, you will wonder where he gets his energy to keep blowing and how his harmonica keeps from falling apart. Kudos to Telarc for having the insight and ingenuity to sign this legend and to release this disc. Unfortunately the man of the hour can no longer sing but this is still a 100% Cotton disc. James, his guests and the songs are all astounding. Join the colossal celebration by purchasing this CD today. For additional information, contact and

--- Tim Holek

James Cotton is quite possibly the last of the “old school” blues harmonica player left.  Cotton has been playing the blues for nearly five decades, beginning in 1954 when he filled the shoes of Little Walter in Muddy Waters’ band.  Traveling with the king of Chicago blues had been a move that James Cotton had been preparing for with the support of his harp instructor, Sonny Boy Williamson.  By the late 1960s Cotton was reading to venture out on his own.  Signed with Verve, The James Cotton Blues Band put out their first full-length self-titled release in 1967.  The sound was gritty, intense and passionate.  

Cotton still demands top billing despite the fact that throat problems have robbed him of his once boisterous roar. He is still considered one of the greatest blues harp players of all-time. 

Comprised of mainly James Cotton originals, 35th Anniversary Jam is more or less a tribute to this blues man and his music.  For the record, Cotton enlisted the help of the next generation of blues players, including Tab Benoit and Kenny Neal, as well as some old friends such as Koko Taylor, Ronnie Hawkins and Bobby Rush. 

The disc gets cookin’ from the get go with the Sonny Boy Williamson classic "Don’t Start Me Talking(sung by Kenny Neal) as James wails in signature style.  While James Cotton doesn’t sing a note throughout the entire recording, his harp playing is as fierce as ever as on the instrumental shuffle "The Creeper."  

With Syl Johnson on vocals and Jimmie Vaughan on guitar, the band tackles the JC standard "Rocket 88" with a commanding intensity.  

The record ends with a dedication to the late John Lee Hooker, with an instrumental featuring only James Cotton and Jimmie Vaughan titled "Blues For The Hook." 

The array of talent who contributed to this CD is truly amazing and is evidence that after close to 50 years, James Cotton is still the premier blues harp player who remains unrivaled.

--- Tony Engelhart


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