Well-known in the blues scene in the U.S. and abroad, these Mississippi bluesmen have a lot more in common than just guitars.
Growing up playing music in the Church of God in Christ isn’t the only thing Clinton, Mississippi-bred bluesmen Eddie Cotton Jr. and Jarekus Singleton have in common, but it might be the most significant.
“When other churches were conservative, not letting people bring in drums, not letting people bring in guitars, at the COGIC church the lid has always been off,” says Cotton, whose father was a preacher at Christ Chapel Church of God in Clinton.
The weekly free-form church services were a training camp for both musicians — Singleton’s grandfather led the True Gospel Church of God in Christ in Jackson — challenging them to keep up with all manner of instrumentation and tempos while honing their improvisational chops.
“Anybody could get up and start to singing,” he says. “If people wanted to shout, they shouted. And being a musician, you had to put music behind what they were doing. If you couldn’t catch them, you were accused of not being able to play.”
After church services, though, Cotton turned his attention to the blues in the historic Sarah Dickey neighborhood where he grew up. That was the music he heard on 90.1 FM while riding around in his uncle’s car, from old schoolers like Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Albert King to “southern soul” blues artists Tyrone Davis, Elmore James and Little Milton, who recorded for Jackson’s Malaco Records.
“Blues was played all the time around the neighborhoods, and the music fascinated me,” says Cotton. “It had a certain feel to it that I just loved even as a youngster.”
Cotton understood how the music of his church related to the music on the block. Even though the songs played in the Church of God in Christ were gospel, he says, they still used blues-based chord progressions and scales, which gave him a feel for the blues. At Jackson State University, he expanded his knowledge base and began experimenting with other kinds of music, but blues was always his foundation, and he sought out likeminded artists.
“King Edward was the first that I ever saw, that I could put my hand on, that was playing the blues like I’d never seen it before,” he recalls. “That encouraged me more than anything, because it was like I found a new home.”
Cotton struck up a friendship with Edward and began sitting in with him on guitar at live performances. “Hearing blues on a radio is one thing,” he says, “but to see somebody play it live is another. I’ve heard guitar players all my life, but they didn’t play with the mastery of lead that I saw King Edward play with. And he was doing it for a living.”
Despite being born half a generation apart, the lives of 50-year-old Cotton and 35-year-old Singleton intertwined through church, music and familial bonds.
As leaders of neighboring churches of the same faith, Eddie Cotton Sr. and Jimmy Lee Shearry, Singleton’s grandfather, preached and led revivals together. That’s how Honey Emmett Shearry, Jimmy’s brother, came to teach Cotton how to play guitar. Later, as Cotton’s popularity grew, he paid that mentorship forward by teaching Singleton’s uncle, Tony Shearry, who then opened his world to the blues.
“We all looked up to Eddie coming up,” says Singleton, who remembers seeing Cotton perform at the Alamo in Jackson while in high school. His uncle Tony would bring him to hear music at the old 930 Blue Café on North Congress Street, too, even though he was underage. “I couldn’t get in, but I’d sit outside and listen to the bands.”
Cotton and Singleton share an independent streak, and not just in their commitment to the blues. Both artists put in the work to have it their way, building their audiences and running their own businesses while continually investing back into it and becoming savvy marketers.
Although they’ve both recorded for prominent record labels, they currently maintain control over their own recording and performing careers, while others choose to work within the traditional network of booking agents, managers and publicists. Their method is becoming more common in the age of streaming, where consumers listen to music through platforms like Spotify and Apple Music instead of owning physical CDs distributed by a label.
“I wanted to do it a certain way,” Cotton explains. “I wanted to make a certain amount [of money].
And you’ve got these people, the movers and the shakers so they think, and if you don’t do it they way, they try to make it hard on you. So, I always was, ‘If you can’t get in the niche, you have to create your own.’”
As Cotton and Singleton have established themselves as popular blues musicians on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean through touring clubs and the European and U.S. festival circuit, their friendship and mutual respect endures.
“I go to his house every now and then,” Singleton says. “He’ll just grab a guitar, he’ll tell me to pick one up. He’s a phenomenal musician. He plays organ, drums — and he might can play more instruments than that.”
The artists were scheduled to perform together at the city of Clinton’s 31st July 4th Family Fireworks Extravaganza until the continued spread of COVID-19 led the city to cancel the event. Instead, Singleton has been working on his fourth album at Brudog Studios in Pelahatchie.
“The pandemic is holding us up for sure, as far as playing live,” Singleton says. But considering more recent events, he has heavier things on his mind these days.
“This racial issue we really have to address, and it’s getting out of hand. I’m just thinking about how we have to speak to this racism and this police brutality, and this unwarranted behavior toward blacks and other minorities,” he says.
The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of policemen or private citizens acting in that capacity this spring have made those issues a global conversation once again.
“A policeman should be a friend of the people,” says Cotton. “He should be someone who I can trust to uphold the law. If you check history, that kind of authority is always being abused. What I think is going on now is with social media, you can’t get away with stuff you used to get away with.”
As statues and symbols honoring the Confederacy began to come down around the United States, Mississippi legislators voted to remove the state flag, which flew for 126 years with the Confederate battle emblem in the upper left corner. Gov. Tate Reeves signed the legislation to retire the flag on June 30.
“[The flag] shouldn’t even be an issue,” Cotton says. “I hear people talk about their heritage. I can understand that, but on my side, being an African American, it didn’t work for me. I don’t need to be reminded that this is what it’s about — white supremacy. That part I don’t agree with. That’s what it means.”