James Cotton, who has died aged 81, was among the greatest exponents of the classic blues harmonica; his career reflected the latter-day history of blues itself, from the obscure poverty of the north Mississippi Delta to rock festivals and award ceremonies.
James Henry Cotton was born on July 1, 1935, at Tunica, Mississippi, the youngest of nine children in a sharecropping family. His mother had a small harmonica, with which she would amuse the children by imitating farm animals, train whistles and other everyday sounds. James took up the instrument and, by the age of seven, was playing it for small change on the streets of Tunica.
When he was nine, both his parents died. He went to live with an uncle, who happened to be a friend of Rice Miller, known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, celebrated for his blues band and his harmonica playing. The boy idolised Sonny Boy and became his informal apprentice. "I watched every move he made, every word he said. If he played it tonight, I played it tomorrow."
In 1950, Sonny Boy moved away, leaving the 15-year-old Cotton in charge of his band. Unsurprisingly, the whole thing soon fell apart. In search of a job, Cotton moved to Memphis, where he drove an ice truck during the day and played and sang the blues at night. Within a year he was playing alongside Howlin' Wolf in his band.
In 1953 Cotton recorded a single titled Straighten Up, Baby, for Sun Records. This was followed by Cotton Crop Blues, which scored a brief hit in the South.
At the age of 20, he joined Muddy Waters in Chicago, taking over from Little Walter Jacobs, whose rapport with Waters had set the pattern for the harmonica in the evolving genre of electric blues.
Its role was to provide a kind of running commentary on the singer's tale - sympathising, protesting, agreeing, mocking. So popular was the partnership of Muddy Waters and Little Walter, that the band's record label insisted on keeping it in place for recordings, leaving Cotton to play the live dates.
This arrangement lasted for more than a year until, not only had Cotton's partnership with Muddy grown as close as his predecessor's, but he had become indispensable as an ideas man. It was he who introduced Muddy to I Got My Mojo Working, the song which became his signature tune.
By 1960, when their performance of Mojo caused a sensation at the Newport Jazz Festival, Cotton was as celebrated as Little Walter. His method of cupping the microphone against the harmonica was so widely copied that it became standard practice.
Leaving Muddy Waters in 1966, Cotton formed his own James Cotton Blues Band, which went on to record 25 albums, and as the Chicago blues style caught on, Cotton and his band would share the stage or recording studio with a new generation of white performers, among them Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Keith Richards and Britain's Chris Barber Band.
Cotton also sang the blues, and his gritty voice is prominent on his band's earlier recordings. He survived an operation for throat cancer in the 1990s, after which he rarely sang.
Failing health caused Cotton to retire, much against his will, in 2013. He died on March 16 and is survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.