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Living legend not done making history

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James Cotton still looking forward

Who: James Cotton Blues Band

Where: Buffalo Bill’s

When: Tuesday, Nov. 11

Tickets: $30

"It was 1954 and I knew who Muddy Waters was but I had never seen him. I had a gig on a Friday night in West Memphis, Arkansas, when a man walked up to me and said, "Hello, I’m Muddy Waters." Not recognizing him, I said, "Yeah, and I’m Jesus Christ!" I played with him the next night in Memphis and left for Chicago with him on Sunday.

"The rest is history."

There’s only one person in this world that can own up to that tale and his name is James Cotton, the legendary blues harpist who will grace the stage of Buffalo Bill’s this week with band in tow for an intimate performance.

The aforementioned tale marks the beginning of his association with Waters, who subsequently invited Cotton to join his touring band. The relationship lasted 12 years, ending when he set out on his own, forming the James Cotton Blues Band in 1966. In all that time, he’s played with legends, he’s learned from legends and they’ve learned from him.

Cotton was through this way back in March 2002, the year he was honoured with a compilation CD on his Telarc label celebrating 35 years of the James Cotton Blues Band, and featuring a hand-picked list of respected collaborating artists.

"I chose them," he notes. "They’re all friends of mine."

And now the living legend has once again seen fit to come up and thrill Whistler blues aficionados with an authentic night of true blues. Show-goers are going to be treated to more than music on Tuesday night. They’re going to experience living history.

Every time Cotton breathes into his harmonica the sound evokes a career that dates back to the 1940s when he was taken into the tutelage of Arkansas radio broadcast musician Sonny Boy Williamson. Now 69 years old, Cotton can claim the distinction of performing in seven different decades. He’s scored wars, moon landings, assassinations, and technological advancements with his soulful harp, and collaborated with some of the most respected performers in American music.

Did Cotton ever think that as the first years of the new millennium rolled by he’d still be touring, still be playing, still be innovating and influencing yet another new generation of bluesmen?

"When I first started playing, I didn’t think I’d ever get paid for it," he writes.

Yet here he is, conversing with a Canadian journalist via e-mail from Texas, so he can rest his world-worn voice. Looking back he notes the world has changed and so have the blues.

"Nothing stays the same, but I think the change is for the better," he writes. "I’m glad I’m part of the change."

It’s this adaptability that has allowed him to maintain a career in such a traditional musical genre. Cotton says he listens to "all types of music, everything from Doc Watson to Jimmy Reed," and if there’s one artist out there that he hasn’t yet worked with that he’d like to work with it’s Mick Jagger.

Just like the Stones, the fact that the years keep on rolling by doesn’t mean the music has to end. Mick can still strut just like Cotton can still make the harp sing, cry and laugh at the world. The definition of legend can be drawn from their longevity and enduring impact. Cotton, for one, is still playing, and making new history every day.

Catch the James Cotton Blues Band this Tuesday, Nov. 11 at Buffalo Bill’s. Cotton is expected to draw extensively from his impressive bag of musical tricks to produce two 75 minute sets. Tickets are $30, available in advance from Bestsellers, Buffalo Bill’s and Whistler Entertainment. For more information call 604-932-2446.

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