When James Cotton plays harmonica, it sounds like a hurricane blowing through the reeds.
"I don't know any other way," he said. "It feels good to me. I enjoy doing it."
Cotton, who won a Grammy award in 1996 and has been nominated for several more, will appear at the Larcom Theatre in Beverly on Saturday, May 31, with J. Geils opening.
He has performed with most of the legendary blues performers of the past 70 years, from Junior Wells to BB King, as well as rock-and-roll greats like Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin, with whom he shared a manager.
"She was very fun to be with," he said. "She drank a lot of Southern Comfort. Sweet lady."
Cotton, who was born in 1935 and lives in Austin, Texas, was introduced to the mouth harp by his mother, a sharecropper in Tunica, Miss.
He learned his first blues song listening to Sonny Boy Williamson on the radio and could play his signature song, "Good Evening Everybody," note for note.
Cotton met and started playing with Williamson after his parents died when he was 9, and took charge of his band when he was 15.
Cotton also played and toured with Howlin' Wolf before joining the Muddy Waters Band in 1954, where he remained for 12 years, playing on many of Waters' biggest hits.
He founded the James Cotton Blues Band in 1966 and, like many bluesmen at that time, Cotton found a new audience among college students.
"They'd never seen nothing like me and I'd never seen nothing like them," he said. "It was beautiful, beautiful."
Cotton looks back over his career in the five terse stanzas of "Bonnie Blue," a song that concludes "Cotton Mouth Man," an album he released last year.
"I'm the same old farm boy / That was born on Bonnie Blue," he sings. "I want you to listen to me baby, / While I play the blues for you."