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Blues harp giant James Cotton, dead at 81

Paul Natkin/Getty ImagesBlues harmonica master James Cotton has died, his label, Alligator Records, confirms.  He was 81.  Cotton died Thursday of pneumonia at a hospital in Austin, Texas.

Born on a Cotton plantation in Mississippi in 1935, Cotton learned to play harp from Sonny Boy Williamson II and as a teenager in the early 1950s played live with Williamson and Howlin' Wolf. He is best known for the twelve years he spent as part of Muddy Waters' famous Chicago blues band in the 1950s and early 1960s, splitting duties in the recording studio with fellow blues harp giant Little Walter, and appearing on Muddy's classic 1960 album Muddy Waters at Newport.

He formed his own band in the mid-1960s, touring briefly with Janis Joplin and performing on bills with the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead and Steve Miller, and began a long solo recording career.  His most recent album, 2013's Cotton Mouth Man, featured guest appearances by Gregg Allman, Joe Bonamassa, Warren Haynes, Rolling Stones keyboard player Chuck Leavell and others.

He recorded with Waters again in the 1970s on a series of albums produced by Johnny Winter.

Cotton won a Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy in 1996 for Deep in the Blues and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.

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