King Cotton aims for the pure distillation of R&B
The R&B staple will scare up some serious funk this Halloween at Viva Cantina.
If they made a movie about singer King Cotton's life, no one would believe it.
From his Texas dairy-farm childhood, syncing the rhythms of 150 milking machines so they'd accentuate the mambo and R&B rhythms he'd tune in on a little transistor radio to his early-'60s Vietnam stint as a U.S. Marine where he and his African American pals would form a circle and sing doo-wop on the flight deck between chopper sorties to performing in stadiums and arenas across the country with the biggest names in 1970s rock 'n' roll, it's an epic tale of gaudy and highly unlikely proportions.
“I'm so left of center that I just never fit in,” Cotton said. “So I have my own clique — which is me. I'm the only one in it.” The show-stopping funk and soul entertainer, who will appear at Burbank's Viva Cantina on Halloween night, is a charming, live-wire character with a trove of colorful anecdotes from his multiple decades in the music business.
“I was born in Navasota, Texas. It was [soul star] Joe Tex and [bluesman] Mance Lipscomb and me — I knew both of 'em and knew I was in good company,” Cotton said. “I grew up listening to every type of music there was. I loved tuning in Houston's black stations that played what they called ‘race records' and I loved the old hillbilly and country and pop, those crazy mambos, all of it.”
After returning from Vietnam in 1964, he was stationed in Barstow. “I discovered Hollywood one day,” Cotton said. “And that was it. So I saw the Sunset Strip in '65, was a part of all that, but then moved back home in '68.”
In Texas, working under his given name of Dicky Sony, he formed Navasota, a band with an (at the time) unusual American roots-rock style that quickly rose to local prominence. “Navasota was a country rockin' band, similar to Creedence [Clearwater Revival], hard-edged, not jangly, more on the rock side for sure,” he said.
After landing reliable management, Cotton found himself in the spotlight as lead singer, opening for everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Deep Purple to the Mahavishnu Light Orchestra and Humble Pie.
They landed a record deal with ABC Dunhill, came west to make their debut album in 1972 and never looked back. Despite a solid rep in the Lone Star state and gigs everywhere from the Houston Astrodome to Austin's famed Armadillo World Headquarters, “I wanted to come home to Hollywood,” Cotton said. “I couldn't take the whole scene with Waylon and Willie. I mean that was fine, but not for me.”
The album, “Rootin',” featured collaborations with Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen but didn't get any serious traction with record buyers. Nonetheless, Navasota gigged on until 1979, even after several of its cofounders returned to Texas. But the writing was on the wall and after they disbanded, Dicky Sony had a revelation. With his deceptively cherubic features and a cloud of prematurely whitened hair, he assumed his stage moniker after reading that Elvis Presley's infamous daily pound-of-bacon breakfast always had to be local Memphis King Cotton brand.
“I wanted to do a pure R&B act,” he said. “So I took the King Cotton handle, got a good band together and landed a residency at the Central [now the Viper Room] on the Strip.”
As King Cotton & the King Pins, they became a popular draw. After indie rock spearheads Peter Case and the Plimsouls began using them as an opener, they found the new wave set dug their old school sound, but Cotton was always on the artistic ascent and he decided to concentrate strictly on a solo career.
The result, his ribald, heavy dance-funk hit “Stick it to the Grind,” became KROQ's most requested song of 1982 and opened several entire new career paths to the singer, whether it was sharing bills with the Talking Heads or playing the gay clubs in San Francisco and New York. His Majesty, who lives on a ranch in La Tuna Canyon, has been a staple performer around Los Angeles ever since.
Today, with his Cold as Ice show band, he works an intense, whimsical combination of hard funk and deep soul. For his Halloween show, “I'll be doing stuff like ‘Back from the Dead,' a real strong funk that was written by Clarence Reid, better known as Blowfly, and we've got a great, swamp version, lots of tremolo, slower tempo,” Cotton said.
“I like to pull stuff out of the old soul crates, obscure things I've wanted to for a long time, with good arrangements. I'm no great singer, but I know how to work a mic. I want the crowd to get down and shake their asses — I believe that's very important. I love to laugh and I love for people to have fun, so I keep it light. I don't have political messages; I'm not that guy. It's all about entertainment.”
I like to pull stuff out of the old soul crates, obscure things I've wanted to for a long time, with good arrangements."
Where: Viva Cantina, 900 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank
When: Thursday, 8:30 p.m.
More info: (818) 845-2425, vivacantina.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”
Produced by Nicole Charky and Jasmine Elist
Photos by Tim Berger