Since 2005 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

Paul Cotton, best known as a crucial member of country rockers Poco, died a year ago this month, and it was easy to miss the news amid all the chaos in the world—to say nothing of all the other celebrity deaths taking up bandwidth. (His Poco comrade Rusty Young, for instance, had passed in April.) Poco don’t seem to have much cool cachet either, and these days their records usually get relegated to dollar bins. They’re due a serious reappraisal, though, and I think it should place them (and Cotton) firmly in the front ranks of the classic-rock pantheon. 

Poco’s sound places them in the vicinity of Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Joe Walsh, and Cotton wrote some of their most beloved tunes—but he doesn’t enjoy anything like the name recognition of those artists. In an August 2021 interview with online publication Rock & Roll Globe, Poco cofounder Richie Furay eulogized his friend. “Musically, Paul was the complete package,” he said. “Great singer, exceptional songwriter and what a guitar player.” 

Norman Paul Cotton was born on February 26, 1943, in Fort Rucker, Alabama, but he considered Illinois his home. Cotton was the eldest of five children; his father owned a chain of grocery stores, and his mother kept the books. Still known as Norm, he began playing guitar at age 13. When he was 16, the Cotton family moved to Harvey, Illinois, where he attended Thornton Township High School. 

“I’m from a town of 5,000 people in Illinois,” he told New Times Broward-Palm Beach in 2015. Ten years earlier, he’d moved to Key West. “So this town is just right for me.” 

At Thornton Township, Cotton soon started his first instrumental band, the Capitols (not the Capitols famous for “Cool Jerk”). In 1961 the group became the Mus-Twangs, who released a couple surfy singles that got picked up for national distribution by Mercury subsidiary Smash Records. Cotton then jammed with the Starfires (not the better-known Starfires from Los Angeles or Cleveland, obviously), the Carol Vega Trio, and the Gentrys (not the Gentrys of “Keep on Dancing” fame). 

YouTube video
Paul Cotton’s high school band the Mus-Twangs released “Marie” in 1961.

In addition to Cotton on guitar and vocals, the Gentrys featured Kal David on guitar and Fred Page on drums. David and Page had played in popular local band the Exceptions with a young Peter Cetera on vocals. After becoming aware of the other Gentrys, they changed their name to the Rovin’ Kind, and in the mid-60s they released several excellent singles on the Contrapoint, Roulette, and Dunwich labels. 

The hardworking band played five nights a week at Buster’s, at one point alternating bookings with soul god Baby Huey. They won a local battle of the bands officiated by Dick Clark, which earned them an August 1966 spot on American Bandstand—and James Brown appeared on the same episode. Having traveled to Los Angeles to shoot the show, the band stayed out west for a spell, gigging up and down the coast. When they returned home in 1967, they opened for artists as diverse as Paul Revere & the Raiders and Little Richard. 

YouTube video
Paul Cotton wrote the Rovin’ Kind’s 1966 single “Right on Time.”

Bassist Frank Bartell quit the Rovin’ Kind shortly thereafter, replaced by Keith Anderson, who’d begun playing with Cotton in the Capitols days. The new lineup played an important gig in ’68 at Chicago’s outpost of the Whiskey A-Go-Go club franchise. In the audience was producer James William Guercio, who promptly signed the Rovin’ Kind to Columbia Records. 

Guercio advised the band to move to Los Angeles and change their name, so they became the Illinois Speed Press (and Cotton began going by “Paul,” not “Norm”). At around the same time, Columbia started working with several other bands from Chicago, marketing them together as “the Chicago Sound.” They included psychedelic group Aorta, horn rockers the Flock, and a little ol’ band called Chicago Transit Authority that had also moved west. (They were formerly called the Big Thing, and later became simply “Chicago.”)

YouTube video
The Paul Cotton song “Get in the Wind” was the only single from the Illinois Speed Press’s 1969 debut LP.

The Illinois Speed Press became an outlet for Cotton’s original and even groundbreaking tunes. “Get in the Wind,” the only single off their self-titled debut LP from 1969, is a fiery rocker with dual leads to be reckoned with, and it got some national airplay. The track contrasts nicely with another Cotton composition on the album, “Here Today,” a mellow earworm that shows off his twangy baritone voice and acoustic guitar chops.

Lore has it that a nascent Lynyrd Skynyrd loved the soul, blues-rock, and country elements on that first Illinois Speed Press LP so much that they memorized the entire record and could play every song. This gives ISP some claim to having originated what would be eventually called “southern rock.” The album reached number 144 on the charts, and it clearly made an impact. Before its recording, though, Guercio had fired Anderson, and before it came out he canned everyone else in the band except Cotton and David.

The second ISP album, released in 1970, was appropriately titled Duet, with Cotton and David aided by studio musicians. Cotton’s songwriting and chops evolved even further, showcased in the mournful harmonies of “Sadly Out of Place,” the blistering Americana trudge of “Seventeen Days,” and the ambitious strings-adorned four-part suite “Dearly.” Before the end of that year, though, David quit the Illinois Speed Press to join kinda-supergroup the Fabulous Rhinestones, and Cotton joined Poco. 

As Cotton tells it, the Illinois Speed Press had a gig with Poco near Disneyland, and he made an impression. “We were both stripped down to four-piece bands at the time, like we were both on our last legs, you might say,” he told the New Times Broward-Palm Beach. “Something about me stuck with them, and a month later, 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.”

Poco had just lost guitarist and founding member Jim Messina, so Cotton had the opportunity to help them reshape their sound. “They had always been labeled too country for rock and too rock for country, so we were always trying to find that happy medium,” he said. “They definitely wanted to rock more, and I definitely brought that energy to them.” 

Cotton first appears on the third Poco album, 1971’s From the Inside, where he contributed a few tunes. They include the roots rock of “Railroad Days” and the pedal-steel country of “Bad Weather.” 

YouTube video
Paul Cotton says Poco impressed Jimi Hendrix with his song “Bad Weather,” from the 1971 album From the Inside.

“I did ‘Bad Weather’ with the band at the Whiskey in LA, 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,” Cotton told New Times Broward-Palm Beach. “He said, ‘Paul, don’t ever stop writing songs like that one.’ That was big!”

Poco’s fourth studio album, the 1972 release It’s a Good Feelin’ to Know, is where I think Cotton might’ve reached his zenith as a songwriter and a player. He spreads out on the grooving, six-plus-minute “Ride the Country,” and I’m absolutely obsessed with his loping, melancholy tune “Early Times.” This shoulda-been-massive song gives me shivers, and its emotive dirge surpasses anything by Poco’s main country-rock competition, the Eagles (to whom Poco contributed members Randy Meisner and later Timothy B. Schmit).

YouTube video
“Early Times” came out in 1972 on Poco’s fourth album.

Cotton became increasingly essential to Poco, writing the western shuffle “Blue Water” and the blistering blooze “A Right Along” for 1973’s Crazy Eyes as well as the Neil Young-ish “Western Waterloo” for 1974’s Cantamos. The prolific band was entering a relatively commercial period, and Cotton stayed aboard: he wrote classics for the LPs Poco 7 (1974), Head Over Heels (’75), Rose of Cimarron (’76), Indian Summer (’77), and Legend (’78). His song “Heart of the Night,” from the last of those albums, charted at number 20.

The band took a brief hiatus in the late 70s, but Cotton stuck around to have songs on every 80s studio Poco LP, starting with the title track (and three other tunes) on 1980’s Under the Gun and ending some four albums later with five cuts on 1984’s Inamorata. Cotton left Poco in 1987, rejoined in the early 90s, then split again to enter semi-retirement in 2010. 

Cotton had begun a solo career in 1990 with the album Changing Horses, and he released several more solo LPs throughout the 2000s while gigging on and off with the Paul Cotton Band. In 2009, a few years after Cotton moved to Key West, he and David reunited for some shows as the Illinois Speed Press—I sure wish I could’ve seen that.

Cotton passed suddenly at his summer home near Eugene, Oregon, on July 31, 2021, at age 78. He left behind a giant musical legacy, as well as his wife, Caroline; his sons, Chris and James; two brothers, David and Robert; two sisters, Carol and Colleen; and a grandson.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.