After seeing the ever-smiling Cotton Westhoff at Dillons last week I flashed on a piece about him in The Little Balkans Review a few years back. Unable to locate the story in my collection, found it the Spring 2011 issue of LBR at Pittsburg Public Library.
Written by musician Jamie Ortolani, who will present the final ‘Music of The Little Balkans’ program (on Rock & Roll and Country) at Miners Hall Museum on March 22nd, the interview travels from the time Cotton was a four-year-old boy in Walnut teaching himself chords on his dad’s guitar, to his early gigs playing swing and big band guitar in orchestras, to playing in rock & roll bands, and, finally, to his long, solo musical career.
Born in 1936, Julian ‘Cotton’ Westhoff grew up listening to a variety of music on the radio: “Of course the stations played a lot big bands like Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman, but I liked to listen to KOAM local radio and we could pick up WSM Country Radio out of Nashville. We didn’t have electricity so we hooked up to a car battery, and when it would run low, we’d put it back in the car to charge a little. Times were hard, but we didn’t know any better,” he told Jamie.
I phoned Cotton to visit a little and ask some more questions about his musical history, starting with how he came by the Cotton moniker. “My hair was white as a boy so it started then. Later on it changed to blonde but the name stuck. Now it’s back to white again.”
He told me that in ’51-’52 he played the Blue Moon and Trianon ballrooms with the Wayne Brillhart Orchestra: “We started out in big band and swing but then began adding rock & roll as it came on the scene.”
Besides eventually playing rock and roll bass and lead guitar with The Roadrunners and The XLs, both Parsons based bands, he played surf music with The Holidays, no doubt covering classic Ventures hits like “Walk Don’t Run,” “Pipeline” and “Wipeout.”
Another Parsons rock and roll band he toured with was The Lancers — for four or five years — playing saxophone. “Saxophone?” I asked with surprise. “Yeah,” he laughed, “I haven’t picked one up in years.”
He also did some playing with the legendary Roy Clark. “I was playing a gig in Arkansas City. Roy Clark was there and he liked the way I played, so I joined his group and played bass guitar for about a year.”
Tired of being away from home and family on the road, in 1964, he started playing solo gigs locally as well as across Arkansas and Oklahoma. At nearly 84 he still plays regularly in Parsons and seven or eight times a month at Barto’s Idle Hour in Frontenac.
Along the way he got bachelors and masters degrees in industrial arts technical education at PSU and taught countless aspiring guitarists. “During the guitar revolution of the ‘60s, I was teaching 120 students a week. Another interesting fact is that, back then, you had to be on a waiting list to even get a Fender electric guitar. Not like today when you can walk into a music store and find a full rack of electric guitars ready to purchase.”
How good was he as an instructor? More than a hundred of his pupils ended up playing professionally.
He also developed a keen interest in the electronics of guitars and amplifiers early on and, for 60 years, has been the ‘go to guy’ for repairs of amps and guitars. He’s also made a name for himself as a wiz in making innovative improvements in guitar and amp sound quality. To wit: David Gilmour, guitarist for the legendary British rock band, Pink Floyd, bought a modified 1957 Fender Stratocaster from Cotton that became his favorite guitar.
Marion Kutz sent every guitar he purchased to Cotton to be evaluated and adjusted before putting it up for sale at Kutz Music. I’ve been to Cotton’s house many times through the years for guitar or amp adjustments. It’s quite an atmosphere. Jamie Ortolani said it succinctly in this description of his workshop / living room: “He had more guitars and amps lying around than some music stories. It was just a great sight to see, enthralling, in fact.”
Before I ended the phone call, I asked him, since he played in so many bands over the years, what it took to make a good band, a good sound?
After a long pause he replied, “Well … every band’s a little different. Everyone’s got his own ideas, of course, about how it should be. You have to be flexible. You don’t always get your way. You have to work together … ‘til it falls together.”
— J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and celebrant. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Training in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-231-0499, email@example.com, or 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, KS 66762