Remembering James Cotton: A magic night in Ridgewood, 30 years ago

JAMES COTTON, 1935-2017

[Editor’s note: The great bluesman James Cotton died yesterday, at the age of 81. I asked my brother Mike to write this piece, about the time he got Cotton to play at a school auditorium 30 years ago (I was at the show, too, and it was amazing). Mike was a student at Ridgewood High School at the time, though the show took place at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School, now known as Benjamin Franklin Middle School — Jay Lustig]

James Cotton passed away yesterday. The name, unfortunately, is not a household name. But to me, and to many music fans, this harmonica player from Tunica, Miss. is a legend.

I see him that way not just because of his career, but also because in 1987 I booked his band when I was in high school and opened up for him with my own band. In a high school career marked mostly with high points like smoking cigarettes and writing “The Clash” on my notebook, this was my crowning achievement, and I still look back on it with joy.

The story of how this show came about is long, and probably dull to everyone but me and a few key friends, so let’s just say that I convinced my school it was a good idea to give me $3,000 to book the James Cotton Band, an obscure black blues group, in Ridgewood, the whitest place in the world.

That’s the condensed version of the story, but it’s the truth. I loved punk rock back then as much as the blues, and I have to say that booking this blues band in Ridgewood is about the most punk rock thing I could have done. In Ridgewood in 1987, The Dead Kennedys would have been less punk than James Cotton.

So, ignoring the story of how this seemingly impossible thing came to fruition, in his memory I just want to recap that night with some of the moments that have stayed with me all this time.

•  I was standing next to Cotton seconds before he was going to walk onstage in the most average school auditorium you can envision. I was starstruck. I had spent some time with the band in their makeshift dressing room, but I still hadn’t gotten used to talking to this man who was from a world so much bigger than my own. He played harp with Muddy Waters for 12 years. He recorded on Sun Records. He played with Howlin’ Wolf and he was mentored by Sonny Boy Williamson II. The guy was royalty to me. And, as my white, self-conscious suburban self stood next to this mountain of a man, he looked at me and asked, “How’s my hair?” It was a receding Jheri curl with an odd mush of sideburns and half a beard, and I could barely respond. I somehow managed to say “great,” which I suppose is the only answer anyone could ever come up with in that situation, and apparently that was all he needed to walk onstage. You’re welcome, James.

A ticket from the time James Cotton performed at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in Ridgewood.

• Midway through the show he did what many performers do and motioned for people to come closer and dance. Amazingly, they did. All the kids got up from their seats, filled in the space between the stage and the first row, and danced. They didn’t sway back and forth. They danced. It blew my mind. I was so incredibly happy to see people from my high school, almost all of whom couldn’t have known this music, get up and dance and respond in that way. I still think of it often. It was a beautiful thing to see.

• The band had requested two cases of beer and a bottle of cognac in their rider, and this was a problem for the school. They couldn’t buy alcohol for a school event. So, in the insane logic of the 1980s I was told I should figure out a way to get the band the alcohol on my own. So I did — I went and bought it, and that was just fine according to the school. I was three years under age, and was instructed by my school to go buy a shitload of booze. Chalk one up to Ridgewood High School, I guess.

• The band bought pot from one of my friends. Nothing more to say about that.

• When they pulled up to the school, it was truly one of the greatest sights I had ever seen at that point in my life. A white Ford 12-seat van with a trailer pulls up, and out pour these musicians in my dumb little suburb. Ray “Killer” Allison, the drummer. Noel Neal, the bass player. Cotton. These guys are some of my idols, and here they are. It is actually happening. For me, this was the equivalent of the stories you hear about a visit from Mickey Mantle or meeting Elvis. It was also a moment where I got my first real sense of how hard a touring band works. Eight or nine guys in a van, driving all over the country for months, playing late nights. It’s brutal, and you could see it on their faces.

• My high school band, The Unemployables, played before the James Cotton Band. This was the biggest music-related moment in my life at this point. It went by in a blur, and I’m pretty sure we played everything way too fast, but I didn’t care. It was all glory at this point. I remember we played some blues standards and some classic rock, and I’d probably be mortified to hear it played back today.

• I remember hanging out in their dressing room, trying my best to fit in. The guys were all sweet and friendly, and Cotton was somewhat talkative even though he looked exhausted. A teacher from school who was an avid music fan and knew who these guys were came in and had a beer with them. This teacher and I did not get along, but he looked at me with such appreciation in that dressing room that it startled me. It was like I had given him a gift, and we both knew it. I gave him the chance to meet someone bigger than life. Bigger than his life, in particular. Maybe it was me projecting something on him, but in this moment I saw him as someone who was unfulfilled in his life who was feeling elevated from his usual routine. It felt tremendously powerful to have that brief interaction. It felt like somehow I had won the small battle we’d been engaged in over the last three years.

• Lastly, I love how embarrassing it is that I made the tickets myself, and on the ticket I listed my band as “special guests.” How did I have the balls to do that? What the hell was I was thinking?

8 thoughts on “Remembering James Cotton: A magic night in Ridgewood, 30 years ago

    • It really was a different era. It didn’t even phase me to be in charge of the alcohol, because I had been successfully getting served since I was about 15. I was just a little shocked that a teacher would literally tell me to go get the liquor myself.

  1. Thanks SO much for this sweet well written story…I was there and I’m still smiling.
    The single mother of three teenagers and everlasting lover of the Blues, what a total and rare treat to see and dance to this band (who I’d seen before in Chicago) at my local middle school. And yup, telling the kids to buy their own alcohol was absolutely how it was. Great to hear the backstory and loved the video too. Thanks so much Mike. PS I remember Jay…through a mutual friend Linda. James..RIP.

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