Drawn To The Blues

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Blues guitarist and vocalist Coco Montoya is a regular visitor to Moe’s Alley Blues Club in Santa Cruz. Billboard Magazine has said of him, “In a world of blues guitar pretenders, Coco Montoya is the real McCoy.”  If you haven’t had a chance to catch his act yet, there are two opportunities this Thanksgiving weekend. 

Coco Montoya grew up in southern California and began his musical career, surprisingly, as a drummer.  During the 1960s, he played drums with local rock bands around the LA area.  He became interested in the blues when he saw Albert King opening for Creedence Clearwater Revival.  “After Albert got done playing my life was changed,” said Montoya.  “Nothing had ever affected me to this level.  He showed me what music and guitar playing were all about.  I knew that this was what I wanted to do.”

Montoya continued playing drums in rock bands throughout the 1970s, but his career took a turn towards the blues after a chance encounter with Albert Collins which led to Montoya attending one of Collins’ shows.  Once again, he was struck by the power of the music. “The thing that I had seen and felt with Albert King came pouring back on me when I saw Albert Collins.”  Some months later, Montoya was invited to play drums with Collins on a tour after his original drummer dropped out.  This led to Montoya playing in Collins’ band for a total of five years.  During his stint with Albert Collins, Montoya began to learn about the blues from Collins.  The veteran bluesman taught Montoya to play guitar, sitting for hours jamming in hotel rooms.  The two men became very close; Montoya has described Collins as “like a father to me.” 

During the early 1980s, Montoya was playing guitar at a jam session in an LA bar when John Mayall walked through the door.  Montoya spotted him and, as an impromptu tribute, played one of Mayall’s songs.  Mayall was so impressed with Montoya’s playing that he requested a tape, and later asked him to join the Bluesbreakers as guitarist.  He remained a member of the Bluesbreakers for ten years, touring all over the world and recording several albums.

After ten years with the Bluesbreakers, Montoya’s mentor, Albert Collins, advised him that the time was right to pursue a solo career.  He talked it over with John Mayall, who agreed, so Montoya assembled his own band and hit the road.  His first CD, “Gotta Mind to Travel,” was released in 1995 on Blind Pig records and became an instant hit with blues fans.  The following year, Montoya released “Ya Think I’d Know Better” and was nominated for four W.C.Handy Awards, winning Best New Blues Artist.

After releasing “Just Let Go” (1997) on Blind Pig, Montoya moved to Alligator Records where he received huge acclaim for his 2000 release “Suspicion.”  This album topped the Living Blues chart for three months and spent almost as long in the Billboard Blues chart.  Several publications named Montoya as one of the greatest living blues guitarists.  With his most recent release, 2002’s “Can’t Look Back” and a heavy touring schedule, Montoya is continuing to build his reputation.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, November 23, 2005

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