Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place locally. This week: Cotton comes to the Keys.
Rock stars of a certain age, like everyone else north of the Mason-Dixon Line, seem to have this intrinsic desire to migrate to Florida at a certain point in their lives. Indeed, we have quite a number of rockers residing in our midst at least part of the year -- Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett, Eddie Money, and members of the Lovin' Spoonful, Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band included. Add to that number Paul Cotton, onetime member of the classic country-rock combo Poco, and writer of such trademark songs as "Heart of the Night," "Under the Gun," "Indian Summer," and "Bad Weather."
Although Cotton's made his home in Key West for the past ten years ("I actually followed Hurricane Wilma here by a few days... That was my welcome!" he says), those who reside just up the road may be unaware we have a genuine legend living in our midst. It ought to be pointed out that anyone with an interest in Americana would be well-advised to give kudos to Cotton and the other members of Poco, as they were one of the main bands that spearheaded that genre in the late '60s and early '70s, well before the term had been coined.
Cotton enjoys the leisurely life. "I can't do 18 holes," he chuckles. "I can barely do nine. But I do a lot of fishing. I ride my bike and walk my dog. Occasionally, I go to see other acts and sometimes sit in with out-of-town bands that come through. And that keeps me plenty busy."
He originally relocated to Key West at the urging of his current wife, Caroline, a travel agent who has lived in that far-south hamlet for the past 18 years. The two were married in 2008 and have resided there ever since. "This place suits me just fine," Cotton insists. "I'm from a town of 5,000 people in Illinois, so this town is just right for me. It would take me a lifetime to figure out where all the streets lead, what with all the nooks and crannies, but it's got so much charm. It would be a hard place to leave."
On the cusp of his 72nd birthday, Cotton's at the age where most people retire. He claims, however, that he's a long ways away from that. He's touting a new album, 100% Cotton, on which he redid several of his seminal songs. "I wanted to re-create them in the mood and the mode in which they were written," he explains. "Some are just personal favorites that didn't get recognized as much as I would have liked. The rest are favorites of the fans and requests I've gotten from them over the years. They always ask to hear these songs in performance, so here they are in a kind of snapshot. We'll probably start working on a volume two in early spring. I'm already taking requests."
In addition, he's become quite involved in the local Key West community, taking part in fundraising benefits, playing gigs at various local venues on a monthly basis, and hosting an annual cruise. He also helped develop a local theater production called Conchs, Cowboys, and Tales of Old Key West that runs for the fifth year in a row at the island's storied Red Barn Theater this coming April.
And the community has recognized him in return. "The mayor presented me with a proclamation, making it Paul Cotton Day on November 15," Cotton says proudly. "That was pretty nice. It was quite an honor."
Still, Cotton's not convinced he'll overshadow the island's most famous native son, the singer and songwriter who made Key West synonymous with "Margaritaville." "We just saw Jimmy Buffet give a private concert for his employees at Margaritaville," he beams. "It was just spectacular. He played for like two hours. We knew the doorman, so that's how we got in. They just sort of fit us in. It made me a fan all over again."
Cotton may be modest, but he's attracted an impressive fan following of his own over the course of the past four decades. His initial breakthrough came with a band called Illinois Speed Press, with which he recorded two albums for Columbia Records (both produced by James William Guercio, the man who discovered the band Chicago), prior to being recruited by Poco.
"Our two bands were playing a gig together at a place called the White Room in Buena Park, which was kind of near Disneyland. We were both stripped down to four-piece bands at the time, like we were both on our last legs, you might say. Something about me stuck with them, and a month later, [Poco guitarist] Richie Furay gave me a call and said, 'Why not come over to the house?' So I not only came over but I brought my guitar, and we just clicked. The next thing I knew, there we were, playing in front of Neil Young at the Fillmore West. That was my debut, and it went over quite well. They were always quite satisfied with what I provided. They had always been labeled too country for rock and too rock for country, so we were always trying to find that happy medium. They definitely wanted to rock more, and I definitely brought that energy to them."
Apparently. Cotton stayed with the band more than 40 years.
Although Poco disbanded last year, Cotton recently participated in a reunion that took place last month as part of their induction into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. "The place was sold out," Cotton recalls. "We rehearsed eight hours straight the day before. We had [former Poco and current Eagles bassist] Timothy B. Schmidt with us, and it was just great. Richie Furay was there, of course, and [pedal steel player] Rusty Young just played his tail off. We performed 'Good Feelin' to Know,' 'Bad Weather,' 'Heart of the Night,' 'Crazy Love,' 'Call It Love,' and 'Keep on Trying.' The crowd went crazy. It was deafening. AXS TV is going to air it this month, and I honestly don't think we'll have to edit it very much at all. We were on top of our game, and it blew the roof off. Oh my goodness!"
Cotton can claim plenty of other amazing memories as well. Dubbed "King Cotton" by George Harrison when the late Beatle gave him an autograph (It read in part, "Good luck with the guitar"), he had encounters with a number of icons from rock's earlier era.
"I've gotten hugs from a few of them," he notes. "I did 'Bad Weather' with the band at the Whiskey in L.A., and after our set, I came walking down the steps on the way to our dressing room and Jimi Hendrix nabbed me on the dance floor and gave me a big bear hug. He said, 'Paul, don't ever stop writing songs like that one.' That was big!"
He also shared a special encounter with Eric Clapton when Poco opened for the guitarist in the '70s. "Yvonne Elliman, one of his background singers, had recorded 'Bad Weather' on her first solo album. So there was a connection between us that way. After we finished playing, she called out to me and said, 'Get up on stage and play some guitar!' The problem was that my guitar was already put away. So Eric gives me his black Stratocaster, and we did 'Let It Rain' in front of 10,000 people."
Overall, Cotton seems quite satisfied. "It doesn't seem like 40 years," Cotton says in retrospect. "It seems like a lot less. Maybe it's because I'm still so active. I just don't look back very much. I'm probably more melancholy than nostalgic."
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