Solo Coco

Albert Collins' protg Coco Montoya is out on his own--he's thinner, but his sound is still fat @

Back in 1993, Coco Montoya had enough trouble for three men: His longtime relationship was faltering, his weight had ballooned to 315 pounds, he was drinking himself silly, and that wasn't even the worst of it. At the time, Montoya was still playing a supporting role after ten years as a guitarist with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Mayall had developed a taste for New Orleans music, and suddenly he wanted Montoya to learn baffling slide-guitar and finger-picking styles.

Montoya knew he had to go solo, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. "I was like a little bird waiting to get pushed out of the nest," he says.

And then, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, his mentor reappeared to prod him. Blues guitarist Albert Collins, who'd taught Montoya to play, was dying of cancer. He sat the younger man down for a talk.

"It's time," Collins said. "I don't want you to wait. You're already in your 40s." Collins died later that year.

A year later, Montoya had his first solo album on a European label. Released on Blind Pig in the U.S. in 1995, Gotta Mind to Travel zoomed up the blues charts and netted Montoya four W.C. Handy Blues Awards nominations. Despite that he'd been performing for more than two decades, Montoya won Best New Blues Artist that year.

Like his first release, Montoya's second album, Ya Think I'd Know Better, is a melange of ballads and blues-rock with a dash of country. Released late this summer, it has already outpaced Gotta Mind in sales and airplay, and stands as the biggest seller in Blind Pig's 21-year history. Somewhere, Collins must be saying, "See? I told you."

Montoya, who plays the Rhythm Room on Tuesday, was raised in Santa Monica, California. In his late teens, he was at a Creedence Clearwater Revival/Iron Butterfly concert when blues guitarist Albert King took the stage and knocked him senseless.

"Here's this black man, six four, who comes up in a suit. We're all sitting around reeking of patchouli with our love beads, and I want to hear "Suzy Q." I thought Creedence wrote "Suzy Q," that's how stupid I was. This guy comes up with just a keyboard and a drummer and, man, suddenly it made sense, everything I'd heard Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton do. That's where it came from.

"So I ran around the back, and I got to see him as he was walking into the dressing room, shaking hands. I ran up to him and I said, 'Mr. King, one day I'm gonna play your music!'

"He leaned over and grabbed me right around the shoulder, and he said, 'All right, young man, all right, that sounds good.'"

Montoya began his career playing the drums. He was in a California Top 40 cover band when he met the other important Albert in his life.

Albert Collins had invented the single-string, amplified style that earned him the title "Master of the Telecaster" while working Houston blues clubs in the 1950s. His 1962 instrumental "Frosty" is reputed to have sold a million copies, although, as with records by other black artists at that time, it never appeared on national charts and Collins never got full royalties. In the late 1960s, the white blues-rock combo Canned Heat found Collins working in a Houston lounge and got him a new deal with the West Coast-based Imperial label.

Montoya met Collins in 1972. The guitarist played one afternoon at the same Culver City bar where Montoya's band was performing, and asked the drummer to sit in for a few songs. Several months later, Collins called, saying he needed a drummer. Montoya stayed with Collins for the next four years, taking guitar lessons from the master in their off hours. Following Collins' lead and imitating his rhythms, Montoya learned the blues.

Working with Collins has left Montoya with a few searing impressions. One time on a tour in the South, Montoya recalls, Collins blew a tire. When he pulled into a gas station, he told Montoya to take his credit card and go inside while Collins sat in the back of his van. As Montoya waited, he heard the white attendant tell a mechanic, "Get that tire fixed for Mr. Collins. He's got a van full of niggers he's got to get to Birmingham."

"I remember being very angry, because by this time there wasn't anything in the world I wouldn't do for Albert," Montoya says. "I loved him, truly loved the man. . . . I was scared because I was young and I thought they could hang all of us. And I remember Albert saying, 'I don't like it, but that's just the way it is.'"

It was a hard time for Collins. His Imperial deal sputtered to a halt at a time when disco sat on the charts like a hippopotamus.

In 1976, his debts mounting, Montoya quit Collins' band and got a job in the shipping and receiving department of a California electronics company. He'd had enough of bands and the road, he says; he just wanted to work his 40 hours, pick up a paycheck, drink and play the guitar.

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