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James Cotton is the living, breathing, history of the blues harmonica. He learned on the knee of the great Sonny Boy Williamson and had shared the stage with legends Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters by the age of 20. He's now pushing 40 years on his own -- and I mean pushing.

With town crier lungs, the corn-fed and overall-clad Cotton blows his harp with such lyrical force that it shakes the walls and everything within them into a frenzied, foot-stompin' hoedown. Throat cancer and surgery in 1994 robbed him of much of his voice, leaving singing duties to his stout full band, who will join him for two shows for the price of one, at 9 and 11:30 p.m., Saturday in Nietzsche's, 248 Allen St. (886-8539). We spoke with him by phone from his home in Austin.

How did you get taken in so young by Sonny Boy Williamson?

My mother used to tell us bedtime stories, and she'd use a harmonica to make chicken and freight train sounds, and I learned how to do those real quick. But I never heard the blues 'til I heard Sonny Boy on his "King Biscuit Time" radio show. I was 9 years old when both my parents died, and I was one of nine children. My uncle took me to see Sonny Boy, and I played his show's theme note for note and he loved it. My uncle said, "Take him home with you. I'll pay all his bills, just take care of him." I was making $36 a week driving a tractor at home, but soon I made $46 in one hour playing. (Laughs.) I played in Sonny Boy's band for six years.

You also played with Muddy Waters for over a decade. Is it true that you first suggested the band play "Got My Mojo Workin"?

I did, and I got fired for it! We were making a record called "Tiger in Your Tank." When we got together to play it, Muddy kept forgetting the words, and he said, "You messed up my music!" I said, "No, you messed up your music, you the one singin' it!" (Laughs.) Muddy fired me that day, but he called me back exactly 31 days later and I played with him for years after that.

I understand you played Buffalo often then, too, both with Muddy and after you went on your own.

Yeah, it's beautiful up there. Back then we played places like the Pine Grill and the Governor's Inn. I first played Nietzsche's a long time ago, and Joe (Rubino) the owner was real nice. Now we've got to be like friends, and it's like goin' home to play.

Did you ever see James Peterson shoo little Lucky off the Hammond B-3 at the Governor's?

Oh yeah, Lucky was a trip. I've known Lucky Peterson since he was 3 or 4 years old, and he'd sneak up on that thing. (Laughs.) But James was great -- they were there for the music.

I hear you blow the harp so hard you've actually broken a few!

That's true! The last time I played, I blew the keys out of three brand-new harps. I put pressure on 'em, and the keys just break.

Well, make sure you bring enough, you got two shows to play here this weekend.

Oh I will, for sure. I'm a night owl, so we'll play late, too. Music's been good to me. It's a good feelin', one I can't get nowhere else.

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