PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
February 26, 2008

Blessed by the Blues

by Jim Newsom

Coco Montoya’s latest album on Alligator Records, Dirty Deal, is the real deal, a rockin’ blast of blues and R&B with healthy helpings of blazing guitar pyrotechnics and soulful singing.

“I gotta thank [producer] Paul Barrere for that,” he said when we talked by phone earlier this month. “He put a lot of effort into trying to get me something a little more raw. We were just cutting tracks in one or two passes, roughing it up a little bit. I didn’t mess with too many effects. I just used my Carr amp, my touring Strat and my Hoochee-Mama pedal.”

Montoya, who’ll be in Virginia Beach for a concert at the Jewish Mother Wednesday night, has a musical life story that reads like a fairy tale. A California native, he may be the only guy to work with two legends of music playing two different instruments.

“I was pretty blessed,” he admitted. “I didn’t seek either one of those gigs; they just fell in my lap.”

“Those gigs” are a five-year stint playing drums with blues guitarist Albert Collins in the 1970s and a ten-year run on lead guitar with John Mayall from the mid-80s to 1993.

“I met Albert on a social level,” he recalled. “A sax player that was playing with my band useta play with Albert and with Buddy Miles Express. He had a free pass to the Whiskey to see Buddy. And that’s where I met Albert—I spent the whole night drinking and talking with him. It wasn’t until he played a Sunday matinee at a small club that I was playing every weekend that I got to see him play. I sat in with him and had a great, wonderful education in one day.

“Later on that year, in ’72, I was hanging out in the backyard with some friends trying to figure out what we were gonna do. I was barely 21 years old. And my mom tells me Albert Collins is calling. I picked up the phone and Albert said he was desperate for a drummer, asked if I wanted to do this run with him. I said I didn’t know any of his stuff, but he came by, and in about three or four hours I was on my way to Eugene, Oregon, no rehearsals. I got up in the morning wondering what I was going to do, and that evening I was headed to Oregon with my drums in a trailer wrapped up in blankets ‘cause I didn’t have any cases. Within a day my whole life changed.

“It was Albert who actually taught me how to play the blues. We useta do sound checks with just me and him playing together, guitar and drums. He had his own way of showing me—it was all by feel, and playing it over and over [until] you absorb the knowledge and it comes into your heart and soul.”

As disco killed the market for blues performers in the latter part of that decade, Montoya left the road. He took a job as a bartender at an English pub owned by British musician Kim Gardner, playing guitar in his spare time and participating in a weekly jam session at a club in Hollywood.

“They were the greatest jams I’ve ever seen,” he said, “There’d be nobodies and somebodies mixed together. Rod Stewart useta come in there and jump up and sing; Eric Burdon, Phil Collins, Chaka Khan—It was great for me at that time.

“Mayall happened to come in and somebody said he was celebrating a birthday. I did a bastardized version of ‘All Your Love’ for him. He didn’t really say anything, but apparently he asked the guy who ran the board for a copy of the board mix tape.

“Then in ’84 I get a call and it’s John Mayall, and he says he’s reforming the Bluesbreakers. And I actually hung up on him! I figured some of the guys were having fun with me. But he called back and said ‘This is really John Mayall and I’m definitely interested.’ So John Mayall literally brought me back into the music business. I thought I’d had my fun in the sun and I was pretty much done.

“We had a couple of rehearsals and then, boom! Off to Italy.”

The time with Mayall was instructive in many ways:

“He’s very much about business, which influenced me considerably—how to run business, I learned it from John. One day we were bitching and moaning because we hadn’t had a day off, and John goes, ‘Look guys, I brought you out here to make a living; you’re here to work. Let me make you some money and you can go home, buy a ticket and lay out on the beach as much as you want. But we’re working people out here.’

“That really stuck with me. He brought me out to make music and to make a living. And that’s pretty much what John was about.”

With such a memorable moniker, I had to ask if “Coco” was Montoya’s given name.

“No,” he laughed, “my given name is Henry. A girl back around 1973 started calling me that and it stuck. I wasn’t a big fan of Henry anyway! This girl that I saw for maybe a month made it up.

“It’s weird how these things happen. Most everything I’ve done has developed without a real conscious thought. When I learned to play guitar it was for myself; it was by myself. I had no preconceived idea of where it was going.”

Coco Montoya
Wednesday, February 27 – 8:00 pm
The Jewish Mother
422-5430; www.jewishmother.com

copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.