Out of nowhere came this call from a man with a heavy British accent. “This is John Mayall calling. I have this tape of you dedicating a song to me for my birthday.”
Coco Montoya thought it was a joke.
“I want to talk to you if you’re interested. I’m putting together a Bluesbreakers. Mick Taylor is leaving.”
Coco hung up. Five minutes later his phone rings again. “No, this is really John Mayall.” This time it sunk in. “I was like, ‘Oh, it really is f***ing John Mayall.’ How would he know I’d played a song for him dedicated to his birthday? It must be him.”
Years before in the early ’80s, Mayall happened to be in The Cat and The Fiddle, a Laurel Canyon hangout for British rock musicians, and heard Coco play Otis Rush’s “All Your Love I Miss Lovin’.” Coco had learned it off Mayall’s 1965 Bluesbreaker “Beano” album featuring Eric Clapton on guitar. Coco had worn out seven copies of this legacy album that he loved so much. So, when he found out that Mayall was in the house and that it was Mayall’s birthday, he performed it.
“I did a pasteurized version of it. I decided ok, I’ll dedicate a song to one of my heroes here celebrating his birthday. It was a chance thing and I went for it.”
At the time Coco was a would-be blues guitarist tending bar after a stint as a drummer in Chicago blues veteran Albert Collins’ band. Mayall was calling Coco to offer him the slot once occupied in the mid-’60s by Eric Clapton in the Bluesbreakers, the band that had given Clapton his blues creds. Coco picks up his Cinderella story.
“I remember we went to the Central Club during the day. John Mayall was holding auditions for a bass player and drummer, and he had me there. (He told me,) ‘I like what I got here. We’ll be leaving in a few weeks for an Italian town. We’ll have a couple of rehearsals.’ Literally, it was two or three rehearsals. I mean it might as well have been none, but I told him, ‘I need to think about it.’ He was, ‘I’ll give you three days, and I’ll move on.’
“I had to think about it because I wasn’t in the music business anymore. It put me back in the music business which I didn’t have a real good taste of from my last go round. I loved music, but I realized I didn’t like the business too much, so it took John Mayall. Even if I lasted a month, I was a Bluesbreaker for a month, you know? I said, ‘S***, this is another opportunity I’d better take advantage of,’ so I said yes, and that’s how that happened.”
During Coco Montoya’s five-year tenure with Mayall he shared guitar playing duties with Walter Trout. “The game was who is gonna be louder and who is gonna be faster that night? Who was gettin’ over more? John could see it. He knew it, and he capitalized on that in a lot of ways. He knew when he had something good going on. Me and Walter had a chemistry that really worked, and I’m not sure any of the other guitar players he had would have been able to work that form. That was the only time I could think of that he had two at the same time.
“Walter Trout is a fireball as everybody knows. He comes out to play, and I come from the Albert Collins thing, so I was a crossbreed of Albert Collins type thing when I was up, and when I was down I was more like Eric (Clapton) where I would take a back seat.”
It’s one thing to fall into an opportunity like the gig with Mayall once, but for Coco Montoya this was lightening striking a second time. His first shot at the big time was with Albert Collins. “I saw him do a matinee in Culver City at the place I always played drums at every weekend. He wanted my number. I gave him my number and never thought anything about it.
“Several months later, he was desperate for a drummer. The guys he had had bailed on him. So, I knew that was what was going on. After playing with the guy, I just said, ‘Look, I’ll go home whenever you get somebody who can really do you justice.’”
Collins told Coco, “Do you really want to learn this music? I love what you’re doing. You stick with me, son. You stick with me, and I’ll teach it to ya.” Coco told Albert, “As soon as you get somebody, I’ll go home. I’ll get on a Greyhound bus and I’ll go home.” That same day they hit the road.
“Yeah,in a matter of hours we were gone. I was frightened to death, and it was one of those instances where I probably didn’t understand either why would I accept doing this? Why would I even take a chance doing this, you know? I was scared. There was no doubt about it, but for some reason I knew I wasn’t going to get another chance like this to experience this, so I jumped in the cold water. I just did.
“We played the University of Eugene in Oregon, and there may have been 3 or 400 people, maybe 5 at the most, but to me that was like Woodstock. It was a sea of people. I was scared to death. The guys were running the gig down to me as we were driving up Interstate 5 heading up to Oregon. Yeah. I did it cold turkey, and I was definitely not a blues drummer at that time. I loved the music, but I was not well versed in it.” But he was hooked.
“It was like the first orgasm you ever had.”
Switching to guitar with Collins was an easy transition. “What was great meeting up with Albert was he was of the same mind. I understood him. He understood me because we weren’t technically gifted. We didn’t have any technical knowledge going on. Albert just did what he did. He didn’t question it. He didn’t try and dissect it. I don’t think Albert ever knew pentatonic nothing. I remember all the years I never heard that word, and didn’t know what the hell it meant and actually didn’t give a s**t what it meant.
“But it was just because of the way I learned, and so here’s two guys that I could understand. I could feel. He wanted me to feel what was happening. ‘Watch me, listen to me, you know, so I can tell you about this music,’ and he did. I remember after the first six or seven months of playing with him, I knew when he was going to stop, when he was going too fast, when he was gonna go back in his head. I knew when he wanted a break in the song. I knew when he wanted to bring it down. You just feel it which is perfect for me because that’s all I’ve ever known about music is what I feel.”
Collins brought Coco into the world of the black road warrior telling the young white man from the West Coast, “You’ve gotta know when and where to pick your fights,” warning him, “You’re fixin’ to s*** and fall back in it.”
There was the time in Mississippi when the band’s van got a flat tire. It was Coco’s job to deal with the gas station. The attendant said to him, “Alright, you gotta fix this tire. Guy’s got a van full of niggers, and we gotta get ’em out of here.”
“I got hot headed,” recalls Coco. “I wanted to get out and do something about it. And I was hurt. I didn’t like what he said, and Albert grabbed me. I remember him pinching my thigh. I was about to get out of the car and say, ‘What the f***, you fat son of a bitch. What did you say?’
“And Albert said, ‘Uh-uh, son.’”
“That’s one of those times you’re fixing to s*** and fall back. He said, ‘You calm down, son. You don’t want to fight. You can’t even win this one. Fix the tire and let’s get the f*** out of here.’ And I listened to what he said, I realized, I’d finally gotten out of the car. A Whole bunch of s*** would have started that we couldn’t finish. But it was my introduction to watch this man go through this kind of indignity, all this kind of s*** going on and to see him still be gracious and be a humble and wonderful person. I said, I’m amazed. I’m amazed by this man, amazed the s*** he had to put up with.
“I was an insecure kid. That’s all there was to it. I wasn’t popular in school. I wasn’t athletic. My mom and dad busted up. I’m sure that probably had something to do with it. Not a very secure kid, so when it came to doing things and what I knew from being in school I learned that basically people are cruel, and people are mean, and people are gonna make fun of me. So, basically I stayed on my own to pursue this thing. I kept it (the job as drummer for Albert Collins) to myself.”
On the road with Collins he soon discovered that everyone in the band was carrying a gun. “I’m looking, ‘Why is everybody’s chest sticking out over there?’ Found out everybody had a gun but me, and if that s*** were to start, I would have been a squirrely little mother f***er. After a while I was packing like everybody was some in these s*** places he had me playing in. I got in my mind, I better be able to protect myself. For then it was another day in paradise. I would do all the non-black things in my head saying, ‘God, it’s really bad if I have to shoot somebody. I’m going through all these things, but if I do, I’m going to go to prison.’ I’m questioning everything. I came to a conclusion I didn’t want to carry a gun anymore.”
Albert Collins introduced Coco to B. B. King. “I remember Albert Collins telling him, ‘My drummer has a little confidence problem,’ and B. said, ‘What are you worried about, son?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I just wanna be the best I can be for Albert, you know?’ And he said, ‘Son, all you gotta do, you go up there on that stage and you just go up there with the attitude you’re just the baddest mother f***er there is. Ain’t nobody better.’ He says, ‘The only thing I want you to do when you’re done, you leave it up on the stage. Don’t bring it down with you. Be humble when you come off that stage.’ He says, ‘That’s what you gotta do because it will always be there when you go up there looking for it. Be humble, son. And what you do then, you magnify it.’”
Both Albert Collins and John Mayall helped Coco find his own voice on guitar and vocals. “Albert Collins used to say it all the time, ‘B. B. King’s my brother. I love him, but I don’t want to sound like B. I don’t want you to sound like me. I want ’em to know who I am.’
“Albert said he walked into a music store, and outside of the store you used to put speakers and blast the music to get people to come in. That was a long time ago, and (Albert’s signature song) “Frosty” was playing. He walked into the store, and there was a guy in the store buying stuff. He listened to the first couple of bars, and the guy went, ‘Goddamn it. There’s that f***ing Albert Collins. I can’t stand that man. I can’t stand that music,’ and Albert said, ‘I laughed. I smiled’ and, being young, I said, ‘Didn’t that hurt your feelings?’ He said, ‘Oh, no. Son, he knew who it was!’ And I started laughing. I had one of those ah-ha moments. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s all that matters. No matter that he liked it or not. The fact that he knew immediately who the f*** that was.’”
Coco Montoya has appeared on a dozen albums with John Mayall. He’s appeared on CDs by B. B. King, Debbie Davies, Tommy Castro, Solomon Burke and Finis Tasby. His solo albums have been produced by Jim Gaines (Songs from The Road 2014), Keb Mo (I Want It All Back 2010), and Paul Barrere (Dirty Deal). “Oh, my God, look at these guys walking in on a session. I’m meeting all my heroes. I was just listening to Jim (Gaines) and knowing the quality and the education and the history of this guy. He brought the best out in me, and at that time it was incredible. A first rate experience. Jim was incredible.
“Paul Barrere is a good friend, a guy I made friends with and got to know really well through Richie Hayward from Little Feat who is no longer with us. It was kinda cool because we became friends first, and then the idea of working together was secondary thing which really was wonderful. It really helped take the pressure off everything. He took me places again where I haven’t been, maybe take chances which is great. It’s like, ah, I want to be in my comfort zone. Well, not today. We’re gonna f*** with you today.
“The same kind of situation where I met Keb because his manager was my manager who was Albert Collins’ manager in the old days until his death. So, there was a connection. We first established some knowledge of each other and then when the opportunity came to be another album, Keb threw in his hat in the arena, and said, ‘I want to do something with you that’s gonna be a little different. Everyone knows you can play guitar. You proved that on the other six albums or whatever, five or six albums. So, I want to concentrate on some vocal stuff.’ He ran me through the ringer vocally (I Want It All Back 2010 on Ruf.) It’s the album I have which was great. It was a great experience. That for me as a musician as a player is the most liberating situation.
“It was a great thing, because I listen to what I listen to. I like what I like. I don’t give a s***, f you want to call it back, blue, brown or whatever you call it, whatever the hell you want. I just like what I like, and I’m not gonna dislike it because it’s a pop song. I’m not gonna dislike it because it’s a country song. I’m not gonna dislike it because it’s jazz. If I like it, I like it. Same thing. So, being able to do an album, and then take chances and do a different kind of album was very different for me. But very good for my soul because there is a lot of me. That is a part of me.
Coco released a live album, Songs from the Road, in 2014, his first live CD as a solo artist. “I was scared of that. I was very frightened of that. That to me is a bare, naked situation. It’s not like a studio thing. So, for me I had a place where I felt I was afraid. Yeah, I didn’t want to do a live album, but I had admitted in interviews that I’m not the most perfect guitar player. I definitely clam. You’re gonna hear clams in my show.”
But, I asked isn’t that what blues is all about?
“Exactly, but there are times when I forget the rules that I had learned, and that’s one of these incidents where I realized, you know what? The imperfections are the beauty. That’s really what’s going on that I’m forgetting. It’s like, hey, the little bit of clams and imperfections to me are real for me especially in a day and age when you can take a nobody and there’s a billion of ’em right now that can’t sing but are the cutest things on the earth, good looking, can’t sing a f***ing lick, doesn’t matter because they can fix all that and make you perfect, and that’s why music is so sterile.
“That’s why Playboy doesn’t do any photos anymore because all the women look like mannequins because they got done airbrushing them up so much that they look like plastic. It’s like all those little beauty marks. All those little imperfections were the beauty of the woman. The same thing with playing. It’s just really true, and I had to really remember that. Come to that and say, ‘You know what? I wanna do a live album because this is what I do every day. Why am I afraid? Because everybody who sees me will more than likely hear me clam something. So, what am I afraid of? They still come to the show. They still love it.”
It sounds like he’s still trying to convince himself.
“Well, yeah, there’s a thing about me. I try not to get too full of myself, and I got heroes. I got my people I look at, and I’m amazed by them how incredible consistently they are. It’s amazing, but I am who I am. At 65 years old, you get to that place where, you know what? This is who I am.”
Coco is very good at what he does, but also very lucky. “Absolutely, that’s the one thing I think, lucky to almost a guilt – putting me in guilt because there’s two opportunities that happened to me in life with John Mayall and Albert Collins. How many guys get two chances in the music business? I actually got out of the music business, was working a straight job. My old career as a drummer was over. I was done. I quit.
“I love that Roger Dangerfield line. ‘I quit. Ya know how good I was doing when I quit? I was the only one who knew I quit.’ It’s perfect. It’s true. So, I’m done. I had my experience. I’m gonna do a day job. So, how many times do you get lucky to come back and also end up playing with people you’ve admired all this time? If it wasn’t for the Beano album I probably wouldn’t have discovered all the blues stuff. It took me a while to wrap my head around the guitar sound that Clapton was doing.”
“I’m working on an album deal at this point. Hopefully, if all goes well, it’ll be out April, May, somewhere around there. We’re still negotiating right now. There’s not really anything to say on that subject.”
Visit Coco’s website at: www.cocomontoyaband.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.