Since the call and response musical idiom migrated from Africa to North America via the slave trade that fueled this nation’s development and social fabric, the blues has been part of the foundation of American culture shared with the world. Modern blues has its roots in the Mississippi Delta with many African American musicians who fled the exploitative plantations to head north, often landing in Chicago.
While millions participated in the great migration, few had the combination of ambition and talent to reach the world’s music stage. Born in 1935 on Bonnie Blue plantation in Tunica Mississippi, James Henry Cotton picked up his Mother’s harmonica when he was a youngster and taught himself to play by listening to the radio. When he was orphaned at 9, an uncle brought him to blues great Sonny Boy Williamson II who mentored him and taught him how to play and lead a band. Later, he journeyed to Chicago and played harmonica with Muddy Waters for 12 years. He then began a 5-decade career, transforming the culture of the blues through his aptly named persona, Mr. ‘Super Harp’. He went on to become an influential harmonica player, singer, and bandleader and is largely credited with introducing blues music to rock audiences.
Cotton’s life story is a chronicle of social upheaval, overcoming overwhelming hardship and racial obstacles, while engaged in an immersive music lesson with the best exponents of this original artform. Cotton was the first blues harmonica player to crossover from Chicago’s black clubs to the white rock ‘n roll festival circuit in the late 60’s and 70’s, after which he traveled the world with his band.
In 2013, Grammy award-winning producer/musician Tom Hambridge brought the world renowned blues star into his studio to begin writing songs for an autobiographical album that would become Cotton’s last recording. Nominated for a Grammy, the lyrics for Bonnie Blue tell the story of Cotton’s origins:
I learned from Sonny Boy, Him and Howlin’ Wolf
Twelve years with Muddy Waters and I know what I had to do. Father Time has slipped up on me, long gone is my youth.
I look back in the mirror each morning, and I’ staring at the truth.
This film reveals the core of his drive that enabled success and required redemption from a lifestyle consumed by the road.
Original interviews with many prominent musicians including Buddy Guy, Billy Branch, Bobby Rush, Steve Miller and Jimmie Vaughan are combined with unique live performances and archival footage to create an authentic rendering of Cotton’s harmonica power and enduring musical influence. As rock ‘n’ roll jolted a nation to rediscover its sense of original self, Cotton expressed his soul in a desire to engage audiences with high energy joy. His life and music express the exhilaration he found, bearing witness to music’s ability to make overt social barriers become invisible, to bring people together, to touch the heart living the blues.