Though Cotton's mentors Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson were the primary inspirations for rockers in the 1960s; this Chicago-style harpist forged much more direct links between the two communities. Cotton, who had tracked down Williamson after listening to his King Biscuit Time radio show in the 1940s, traveled with the harp master and proved a quick learner.
He recorded a few singles around 1953, but his most significant work was with other people; he and Junior Parker were Howlin' Wolf's main harmonicists, and those are Cotton's precise tones in the background of Wolf's Sun singles. Waters invited Cotton to replace George "Harmonica" Smith in his band in 1955, and the partnership lasted through 1966, when Cotton left to form his own band, frequently working with rock performers, including Steve Miller, Paul Butterfield, Johnny Winter, Elvin Bishop and many others, and opening for them at San Francisco's Fillmore auditoriums.
Of all the living bluesmen that served in Muddy Water's bands, Cotton summons his former boss' spirit with the most reverence and credibility. Though Cotton has been recording for almost three decades, his best work came after the blues labels started picking him up again in the mid-1980s.
Sadly, Cotton's voice has deteriorated and laser surgery, apparently hasn't helped, and it shows on "Fire Down Under the Hill," which finds Darrell Nulisch stepping up to the lead microphone for "That's All Right" and "Boot Knockin' Boogie." Even though Cotton's voice has left him, his harmonica playing has not. He is in top form and has never sounded better (10-minute 35-second title track, "Cotton Jump Boogie," "Something to Remember You By"). David Maxwell (piano) and Rico McFarland (guitar) also appear on the CD.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Matt Alcott, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.