Coco Stuff

CocoMontoyaCoco Montoya admits it: “I got lucky a few times in my life,” he says in a phone interview from his home in California. But “lucky” is a relative term. In Montoya’s case, the blues guitarist struck gold several times, through some combination of talent and being in the right place at the right time.

The first happened when Albert Collins needed a quick-fix drummer (that’s right, Montoya started as a drummer) in 1972. Collins called Montoya, who jumped at the chance. “It was God’s almighty sword,” he says. “He threw a lightning bolt on me and said, ‘Go for it.’” Later in his career, lightning struck the same spot, and he was invited to play guitar with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. And finally, after he split with Mayall, a friend happened to be in need of a musician for some studio work, which became Montoya’s ticket to Blind Pig Records. His journey is one of letting life happen.

“I’m grateful,” he says. “I think it’s important to have that attitude. The tests come, and when they do, I try to take a moment to stop and be grateful. It helps me a lot.”

Montoya and his seasoned chops will revisit Upstairs at the Dinosaur-Bar-B- Que on Sunday, Oct. 6, a date Montoya is excited for after several years off the Dino radar. “It’s been too long,” he says.

Montoya, who plays “upside-down right-handed guitar,” started on drums as a teen and picked up the guitar as a secondary instrument and tool to write songs. But he never felt good enough to make it. He had a day job and played by night with a horn player who had worked with Albert Collins. When Montoya was introduced, Collins made it a point to hold onto his number. He called it a few months later, and Montoya toured with him for the next four and a half years.

“We were very, very close,” he says.

“Father-son type thing. I loved Albert Collins a lot.”

But the money wasn’t enough to make ends meet, so Montoya reluctantly gave up the road. From 1977 to 1984, he went back to the grind of work by day and music at night with no expectations of having another shot at the big time.

“I just had to take care of business,” he says. “I had to get a job. I thought, ‘There’s my shot at this music thing, now it’s over.’ Everyone told me, ‘You’re growing up now. Go meet a nice lady and make a bunch of kids.’ Where else was I gonna go? I wasn’t thinking I was gonna be a guitar player. Guitar playing was fun. Like going bowling. Do you wanna be a professional bowler? Well, no, I hadn’t ever thought of that.”

But lightning struck again when Mayall ended up in a jam session crowd. He saw Montoya and invited him into the band soon after.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Montoya says, still pinching himself. “I think about it every time. It’s just insane. And Mayall, being one of my hero bands, with Clapton, Peter Green, several others. I was a part of something with history, something that was very significant for me.”

But after 10 years with Mayall, Montoya found himself at another crossroads. He felt he had reached the natural end of his time with Mayall, was in need of a drug and alcohol cleansing and was looking for whatever was next. He got invites from other bands, including a little group called Fleetwood Mac, but he didn’t feel it was the right move.

“Here’s an odd bit of trivia for you,” he says. “I got a call and they said, ‘Mick Fleetwood said to call you.’ After all the big hits, they were re-forming Fleetwood Mac and they wanted me to come down. And I turned it down. After those big hits, would people accept a blues band? I didn’t see it happening, and I thought I was just not that kinda guitar player. And really, is that weird or what? To follow Peter Green down the road from John Mayall to Fleetwood Mac. You’re the only person I’ve ever told that to.”

But the lightning wasn’t done yet.

When a friend looking to produce an album asked Montoya to be the subject, he called in favors from musicians like Collins, Mayall and Al Kooper. The collaborative record hit it big in Scandinavia. “Then of course, no one was interested outside Scandinavia,” Montoya jokes. But when Blind Pig Records picked it up and Montoya hired Collins’ old manager to help get the ball rolling, it snowballed.

Montoya has eight solo albums to his name, with a live CD slated for 2014. And he still grows and challenges himself every day.

“Singing to me is always a challenge,” he says. “It’s not something that comes naturally or easily for me. It just seemed to be a necessity. I thought of singing as something everyone did. Especially when you start writing songs, you want to be able to sing them.”

As it becomes more second nature, Montoya thinks back to advice from Collins. “‘Don’t think about it. Just feel it,’ {Collins} said to me,” Montoya recalls. “As you can see, most everything moved on in this career is by feel. It’s not an overly thought-out process. ‘Don’t think about it, man, just feel.’”


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