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.
Eight years later, Montoya was playing at amateur night in a Los Angeles club when John Mayall heard him. Mayall's British band, the Bluesbreakers, had been a proving ground for Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. He asked Montoya to join.
"I thought, 'Here's an idol,'" Montoya says. "Probably until the day I die, my number one album will be Bluesbreakers--John Mayall With Eric Clapton. I'm a huge Eric Clapton fan, have been since day one, always will be--he's my Roy Rogers, my hero."
Montoya survived his Bluesbreakers years and profited, he says--not least from a story Mayall told him. Mayall's idol was singer and harpist Sonny Boy Williamson. One day Williamson heard Mayall and told him he stunk.
"Oh, yeah, Sonny Boy Williamson told me never to play harmonica again, that I'm not good at it," Mayall told Montoya.
Montoya was shocked. "How do you deal with that?" he said.
"Well, just carry on," Mayall said.
"If Clapton were ever to come to my gig and say, 'You're atrocious,' that would kill me," Montoya says now. "I'd be devastated, but I know now I could go on. If that happened to me years ago, I'd have packed it in. That's something I learned from John--to persevere."
Montoya's acquired will makes for an eclectic mix of songs on his new album. Besides the blues, there's a nod to R&B via a cover of Don & Dewey's "Big Boy Pete," and strains of honky-tonk thanks to guest appearances from guitarist Lee Roy Parnell and Arkansas roadhouse veterans the Cate Brothers.
"I am really adamant about making sure everybody understands I will always be blues-based," he says. "But I will not limit myself to that; if there's more in me, I will express it. . . . My plan is to just keep doing songs I like playing. I'm too old to go scrounge around in spandex or put on a cowboy hat to have a hit record. Life's too short."
Montoya, who just turned 45, has been sober for nearly two years and has slimmed down to 265 pounds. Recently, Montoya found himself battling a case of the flu. Ailing or not, he played the Albert Collins song "Dyin' Flu" night after night, a number he recorded on his last album.
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"It turns from an emotional tribute into something else," Montoya says. "I remember Albert doing it when he was sick, and he'd turn to me and smile and say, 'And I ain't lyin'!'
"It's healing to play it now."
Coco Montoya is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, October 22, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.