A surprise treat for blues fans in Maine comes this Saturday as living blues harmonica legend James Cotton performs at the Skowhegan Opera House at 8 p.m. Cotton was born in 1935 in Tunica, Miss., the son of a Baptist preacher. The story goes that he heard Sonny Boy Williamson on the radio and decided to find the blues harp great at his home in Arkansas. After years of mentoring, Williamson left Cotton in charge of his band. Cotton later joined the bands of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and recorded a few singles for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. He formed his own band in the 1960s, touring with Janis Joplin before she became a household name. Throughout the late ’60s and ’70s, he recorded a number of albums and played on Muddy Waters’ Grammy Award-winning 1977 album “Hard Again.” He became known for his wild stage antics, hollering, dancing and doing back flips for excited crowds all over the country.
In the 1980s, he was nominated for two Grammys, finally winning a Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy in 1996 for the album “Deep in the Blues.” A throat problem left Cotton unable to sing from the mid-90s onward, but he still tours and blows his mighty harp, performing with an array of lead vocalists. Most recently, he was seen on the 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert, performing with Ben Harper as the two inducted Little Walter into the hall. Cotton has played with everyone from Led Zeppelin and Santana to B.B. King and Big Mama Thornton. There are few players around today with the kind of pedigree Cotton has, and his show in Skowhegan this weekend will be a chance to see a true blues great. Tickets are $27 at Brown Paper Tickets (www.brownpapertickets.com), by calling 474-3621, or at the door.