Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Accidental Bluesman

By Mark Jordan

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  It was a chilly Monday night in October, and hundreds had packed into downtown Los Angeles’ Hollywood Palace for a star-studded show in celebration of B.B. King receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Memphis-based Blues Foundation. As the night drew to a close, members of the audience started to drift toward the exits, possibly convinced they had seen the best – John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, and the guest of honor himself – the event’s musical menu had to offer.

But as they slipped on their coats, those with a good ear for blues were stopped in their tracks. Who was playing those tasty guitar licks? Walking back into the auditorium, they would have seen an odd pairing of two white men: one small and skinny with stringy blond hair that hung past the shoulders and next to him a tall, stout older man with a beard and a salt-and-pepper mane of hair that resembled a lion’s. It was from his strong and supple fingers that some of the best leads of the night were emanating. And those in the crowd who knew guitar playing recognized it.

“Man, I’ve never heard him before. He’s good,” more than one listener could be heard commenting.

The skinny kid was the celebrated Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the 21-year-old phenom who more than packed B.B. King’s Blues Club during the recent Bluestock.

But the man who was wowing not just the audience but his fellow players with thoughtful lines and funky runs was Coco Montoya, a drummer turned guitar god, a Southern Californian bluesman who never set out to be one at all.

“That was fun,” says Montoya about the night at the Palace. “It was a real important thing for me to be there. Just to be there with B.B. and to see a lot of friends you don’t get to see when you travel so much.”

In particular he enjoyed seeing King, an idol to most guitar players and a friend going back to the earliest days of Montoya’s career in 1972 when, as a rock drummer with a house-band gig, the 21-year-old Montoya got to sit in with Texas blues great Albert Collins.

“Several months after that, [Collins] just ended up calling me out of the blue,” Montoya says. “My mom’s like, ‘There’s a a guy named Albert Collins on the phone for you.’ And I’m going, why is he calling me? It turns out he was desperate for a drummer. So, I said, ‘Okay, when are we leaving?’ And he said, ‘I’ll pick you up in three hours.’ No rehearsal, no nothing. I was scared, excited. I had everything going at once.”

Montoya’s run with Collins only lasted about three years, but it was an intense education in the music business and in the blues for the young Montoya. And it was while touring with Collins that Montoya began to take a more serious interest in an instrument he had first picked up when he was a teenager.

“We’d be out on the road waiting around and I’d pick up the guitar and start messing around and [Collins] would come over and show me some things,” Montoya says. “I was learning guitar before him, but definitely it was like going to college.”

Montoya quit Collins’ band in 1975 and retired from the music business, preferring to spend his weekends honing his guitar skills by jamming in local bars.

“I started just like everybody else, just trying to emulate the people you idolize,”Montoya says. “You know, I idolized Eric Clapton and Albert [Collins] and Albert King. But I never thought I’d make a career of it. I thought I’d just be a local guy playing around the bars, getting drunk, and having fun.”

And that’s just what he did for several years. Then in 1983, John Mayall, leader of the legendary English blues band the Bluesbreakers, whose alumni include Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Mick Fleetwood, saw Montoya playing in a bar and asked him to join his band. Montoya spent the next 10 years on the road with Mayall.

“It was an education you couldn’t pay for,” Montoya says. “But the ghosts of all great Bluesbreakers guitarists that came before – Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Rick Vito, all these guys that I respect a lot – [it] was a lot of pressure. … But John did his best to encourage me to be me. I remember one time he got very angry at me. He said, ‘Look, stop trying to be anybody else. Eric’s no longer here. I’m not looking for another Eric Clapton. Tonight when we play “Have You Heard,” you play your version.’”

One bad consequence of the Mayall years was that the guy who just wanted to play and get drunk did just that. By the time he left Mayall in 1993, he had developed a bad drinking problem.

“That was a tough time for me,” Montoya says. “I was leaving John. Albert Collins was dying. And my relationship that I was having with [blues guitarist] Debbie Davies was coming to a definite end, which, thank god, we were able to salvage our friendship. She’s one of my best friends now and one of the best guitar players you’re ever going to hear.”

All the drinking and stress had taken its toll on Montoya’s body as well; he had ballooned up to 320 pounds. Having just about hit bottom, Montoya checked into a weight-loss clinic where drinking was forbidden and got himself back into shape. Thinner and sober, Montoya was soon ready to strike out on a solo career at the urging of his longtime mentor Collins.

“Albert was dying,” Montoya says. “He told me on his deathbed, ‘Man, you’ve got to go out and do your own thing.’”

Out of the gate, Montoya scored a hit. His 1995 debut Gotta Mind To Travel topped several blues-radio charts and earned the guitarist a Handy Award for Best New Blues Artist. Montoya has followed up with Ya Think I’s Know Better and his most recent disc, Just Let Go.

So now, after all the travels and tribulations, Montoya says he is at a place where he is comfortable with where he is going and what he is – a bluesman.

“I’m three years sober now,” Montoya says, “and it’s helped me focus, to get me back to what I’m really here for, which is the music.”

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