By Mark T. Gould
For more than 30 years, singer-songwriter Paul Cotton has blazed an unforgotten trail of terrific songs, great guitar work and solid singing, first with the Illinois Speed Press, and then as the "rock" portion of the seminal country rock band Poco.
So, now, at age 55, you might expect that heís stopping to take a breath, perhaps retire, and enjoy his private time at home in Southern California.
Forget it. Armed with a new solo album, his second, entitled "Firebird" (see review elsewhere in this issue), his own web site, and playing with a suddenly rejuvenated Poco doubling their annual output of live shows and, once again, talking about doing a group album, itís clear that heís not becoming, well, a "slowpoke."
"Man, I want to be just like Ray Charles, doing it when Iím 70," a, friendly, relaxed Cotton said recently, in an interview conducted after a late night Poco show at the Fox Theatre at Mashantucket. "You definitely wonít see me slowing down, Iíve got a lot left to do."
"Itís a brave, new, tiny world out there, thanks to the Internet," he said. "And, like Ray, Iíd like to think that I just keep getting better at what I do. I feel like Iím improving, and Iím lucky enough to be surrounded by people who support that. I want to do movies and films and other things, I just want to keep going.
Even if heís not slowing down, itís been an incredibly long run for Norman Paul Cotton, a Chicago native who began playing guitar in his early teens, and moved through a number of bands-The Capitols, the Mus-twangs, The Gentrys, and the Roviní Kind-before being discovered, as it were, as a member of the Illinois Speed Press, the house band at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go in Chicago. They were signed by CBS/Columbia Records, released two solid albums, and then, found themselves opening for another relatively new band, called Poco.
"We were playing at a club in Southern California, I think after Randy (Meisner) left the band, and the Speed Press was opening for us," Poco steel guitarist/guitarist Rusty Young recalled. "We were all watching Paul from backstage, and it kind of hit on us at that time what a great songwriter and guitarist he was.
"You have to remember, we had some very high singing voices at that time (including Richie Furay and George Grantham)," Young said."Paul had, and still has, a much deeper voice and he had that rock sound. We kept him in mind for that at that time."
That was in 1968, and it was two years later, in 1970, that Furay approached Cotton about replacing Jim Messina in Poco.
"There was no doubt that he was the guy to replace Jimmy," Furay said in a recent interview. "We knew that heís bring a little bit of an edge to our sound, and we wanted to be a little more rock and roll sounding.
"Heís a tremendously gifted singer and songwriter," Furay said."It was a perfect fit."
Clearly, Cottonís singing, writing and playing impressed everyone in Poco, making it a smooth transition when Messina, one of the founders, left the group.
"Paulís got a side to him that doesnít have as much Ďcountryí to it as Messina," said drummer Grantham."He took Jimmyís role as a singer and as a player, and took it places it wasnít going to otherwise go. Heís got that good, rough edge to him. Heís an amazing singer."
Cotton made his debut with Poco on the bandís fourth album, "From the Inside," after completing a tour while being tutored by Messina. The Cotton songs on "Inside," from "Bad Weather" to "Railroad Days," clearly showed that, even though he could rock, he could also write some fairly introspective material as well.
"It would really depend on where we were on an album." Cotton said."If we needed something up, I was the guy they turned to. But, if youíve got a meaningful lyric, like with ĎBad Weather,í it needs to take place in a medium to slow things down."
From his beginnings with the group in 1970, through his current work, Cottonís songwriting and playing has remained fresh and strong, even through the myriad personnel changes that have been the history that is Poco. Finally, in the studio in 1978, after bassist Timothy B. Schmit and Grantham had left, Cotton produced "Heart of the Night," which helped propel the "Legend" album to Pocoís first gold commercial success.
"Itís funny," Cotton said," but we worked so long on that record, about six months as I recall, that we never really had the feeling that Ďthis is the one,í or something like that.
"But, some people seemed to know right away," he said. "Our drummer, Steve Chapman, right after we rehearsed the ĎHeartí in the studio, said Ďman, thatís going to be a big hit.
"Hey, heís managed Al Stewart since then," Cotton laughed,"so he must have known what he was talking about."
"íHeartí has steel guitar on it, Rustyís just beautiful playing there, but itís not a country song," he said."We really pioneered something there."
"Heart of the Night" was the first in a long series of Cotton songs depicting life and love in either the Southwest or the Caribbean, areas that he has written about extensively, creating moody pieces that take a listener right to, well, the Ďheartí of it.
"Iím just drawn to the south," Cotton said. "Hey, I spent 25 winters in Chicago. Iím just like those snowbirds. I want to go south. I like anything with, well, some Ďlustí in it. It puts people on vacation, itís like an instant postcard."
Cotton played consistently in Poco, along with Young, through the 1970s and, off and on, in the 1980s. At the end of that decade, the original five members, Furay, Messina, Young, Meisner and Grantham, reformed for the "Legacy" album project and what turned out to be almost two years of touring. Interestingly, after almost 20 years with the band, Cotton was not along with them.
"A lot of fans looked for me in that project, and I was approached about doing it, but it never worked out,"Cotton said. "I was doing my first solo album (ĎChanging Horsesí) at that time. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do at exactly that time. I had a huge budget and the best session players in Los Angeles. I had a row to hoe, I had to do it, and Iím glad I did it.
"Changing Horses," was, by Cottonís own observation, a "very 80s, very high tech album," and he readily admits that "Firebird," released this past April, is more of a typical Paul Cotton album.
"I had a great co-writer on the ĎFirebirdí project," he said."That kept me grounded. Thereís no flighty stuff on there. And, weíre already on our way to another one. Weíre knocking out a tune a week, and itís better than anything Iíve written."
But, with all his solo projects, Cotton still has a mighty allegiance to Poco, where heís played for these past 30 years. Recently, original drummer Grantham and mid-80s bassist Jack Sundrud rejoined the band, igniting talk of a new Poco album. There hasnít been one with Cotton on it since 1984ís "Inamorata," but Cotton says there just could be one in the not too distant future.
"You can pretty much count on that," he said."Itís like is there going to be a sunset? There will be, and itíll be Rusty and me riding off to it.
It has been a interesting 30 years for Cotton and Young, who, along with Grantham, form the backbone of a group that has lasted for so very long. Itís clear, talking to both Cotton and to Young, that there is a bond there that probably canít be broken.
"Thereís always been something there," Cotton says of Young."I mean, heís the one who has carried this Poco banner for so many, many years. Rustyís the one carrying the steel guitar through the airport, and we use it on one or two
songs; heís the one carrying the dobro, and we use it, again, on one or two songs. He and I have outlasted four marriages, all those band members, wonderful players that they are, for 30 years. Itís meant something."
Young, obviously, feels the same way about Cotton.
"This is a friendship thatís lasted 30 years, and sometimes I donít really feel that we are two people, we are that close," he said."Heís never lost that voice, or that great guitar playing. I can count on him. I wouldnít want to do this without him."
And, even after 30 years, Cotton can see a place both for him, and for Poco, in the music business.
"Things are changing out there in the record industry," he said. "Thereís the Internet. We will try to make the most out of that. Our fans are tenacious, and hey, every time I go to a record store, I check it out to make sure that thereís a Poco section in there. Thereís always four or five albums there, and thatís real good.
"Poco fans have always been there for us," he said."Thatís what gets us through the 45 minute sets now, and the longer shows. We give it all weíve got. Weíre very thankful. The fans have been through it with us.
"Iíll sign anything, and talk to any fans that want to talk, anytime, anywhere," he said. "Itís a way of saying Ďthank you for your support.í"
So, with that kind of support, how long can it go?
"You know," Cotton said, laughing," I can see Rusty and me, riding off into the sunset, on our Appaloosas, playing in a tent somewhere. I hope it never ends."