Coco Montoya - Cuckoo for Coco

Upside down. He plays his guitar upside down: low strings to the floor, high strings toward the ceiling. But that's not the only thing about bluesman Coco that's out of the ordinary. In what must seem like a former life now, Montoya's place on stage was once, not in front of a blazing amp and a live microphone, but behind a trap kit and a couple of brassy looking cymbals: He began his musical journey, back in the early 60's, as a drummer. A chance meeting in 72 lead to a lengthy stint and very close relationship with blues legend Albert Collins.

In the era of funk and disco, however, real money and record deals even for artists such as Collins were scarce. Eventually a broke Montoya put down his sticks, thinking the ride was over. Eight years passed before another chance meeting brought him back into the spotlight, this time with a guitar in his hands. He'd been sitting in at jam nights around Los Angeles, when in wandered John Mayall. The English blues patriarch was impressed, and soon after Montoya was back in the music business, taking a spot onstage once occupied by Mick Taylor and Eric Clapton.

Montoya spent 10 years with Mayall, before prodded by Collins Coco decided it was time to put his own name on the marquee. He's released four solo CD's since leaving Mayall in 1994, including his new album, the lush and rockin Suspicion. During a recent tour stop in Chicago, Montoya spoke to about Collins, Mayall, his friendship with another blues legend Albert King, and staying alive in a crazy, crazy business. What do you think makes a good record?

Coco Montoya: I don't know. I guess it's the difference between a good record and one that sells. I dont know what sells. I dont even think about that when Im trying to make a record. I just figure I'm going to do what I like, do what I think I can do well, and let it stand on its own merits. Is hit making something that you've struggled with in the past?

Montoya: I think everybody at some point thinks that they have to figure out, What is a hit record? And I think it's nuts. It's crazy to even try. There's some people that are good at it, but very few of them. I've always found that what I like to play, I play well. What I dont like playing, I don't play well. Are you happier with your guitar playing or your voice?

Montoya: I think it's a mix. I hear things on guitar that I don't think are all that great. Some people think they're great; I don't. But I think everybody's like that. I remember reading in an interview about Clapton when everybody raved about the Crossroads solo. And he didn't get it. He said, I think it's pretty mediocre. He didn't think he really did anything great. Of course I love it. Its one of my favorite solos. As a former drummer, who were the first guitar players that you noticed?

Montoya: It's hard to say when I really became aware of guitar players. There were the Beatles. They played guitars, but nobody was a virtuoso. It wasn't until I heard Paul Butterfield and his blues band, and John Mayall with Clapton around '67. That was a revelation. What Eric was doing was saying something to me. And then through Eric and all those other guys I discovered that the stuff they were doing was emulating black bluesmen from America. And that's when I got a hold of Live Wire/Blues Power (Stax, 1968). After I saw Albert King I had to have that. It's still one of my favorite albums. I saw King at the Shrine Auditorium when I was 17. I went to see Iron Butterfly and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Albert was in the middle. He blew me out. I didn't know how to handle it. I just could not believe it. Did it make any difference to you that he played the same way as you?

Montoya: Oh, it was like, He does it too, and look what he's doing! But I think more importantly, it was a revelation, like seeing a light bulb work for the first time. It made me forget about seeing Creedence. This big black man in a suit just took my head off, rearranged it, and put it back. We became very good friends. He was a cantankerous old dog, but I got along with him real well. I got to see a side of Albert King a lot of people didnt see. So how did you end up as the drummer for Albert Collins?

Montoya: Chance meeting. I had a sax player in a Top 40 band, and he introduced me to Albert, and Albert did a matinee in a small club in Culver City where I was playing on weekends. I sat in and it was just one of those things. Albert took my number down. Several months later he gave me a call. He needed a drummer really bad. In a matter of four or five hours I was in a van with a bunch of black guys headed up to Eugene, Oregon. No rehearsals, nothing. Just, Here we go. How long were you with him?

Montoya: I played drums with Albert off and on from 72 until 78. I played the bulk of it from 72 to 75, and then here and there towards the end. But I had already gotten out of the business. I had gone broke playing with Albert. He had no record deal. We were making like $40 or $50 a man a night. And I loved it loved every bit of it and had a ball. Albert was like a second father, even when I wasn't in the business anymore, he was like my dad. Do you hear any of his playing in your playing?

Montoya: Oh yeah. Everybody tells me that all the time. And I'm not ashamed of that at all. You can't be with somebody, and be that close to them, and not grab a big chunk of that. Did you ever play guitar with him?

Montoya: Yeah. I would come off a Mayall tour, wash my clothes, find out where Albert was, and I'd fly out. I used to keep an amp on his bus, and I'd go out and play rhythm for him. Just to hang with him. I'd help him wash the bus, or whatever. I was never worried about the money. I was just there to have a good time with him. You had actually quit the music business when John Mayall called you?

Montoya: Yeah. When I left Albert, there was disco and funk. I wasn't any of that kind of a drummer. So it dried up for me. I went and got a day job, figured that was it. I never really put much thought into being a guitar player. Things just evolved. I was going out on the weekends, getting drunk and having a ball hitting the jam sessions. I stayed out of the music business until 84 when John called. Close to eight years. You had been a pro drummer. How did John happen to call you as a guitar player?

Montoya: I used to go to these jam session in Hollywood. There'd be all these hopefuls, but there'd also be rock stars that would go there and get drunk and play. I got to play with the bass player for Thin Lizzy, [Phil Lynott], and one time I played with Phil Collins before anyone really knew who he was. One of those nights Mayall walked in. I remember somebody telling me it was his birthday. So I dedicated Otis Rush's All Your Love that he did with Clapton. I guess they recorded it on the board, gave it to John, and John got my number through people there that knew me. And he gave me a call. It was all by chance. Were you surprised by the call?

Montoya: Oh yeah. I didn't think it was him. I hung up on him. I was bartending at a British pub and I thought it was one of the guys having a joke with me. But he called back and said, No, no, I'm really John Mayall. But I didn't know if I wanted to get back into that. And finally I decided, You'll never get a chance like this again. He's one of your heroes. So I leapt off the cliff. You spent 10 years with him. How was that experience different from having played with Albert?

Montoya: It was more organized. John is a stickler and wants things just right. He took care of a lot of business. He's very organized. The money was obviously much better. I learned a lot from watching him do business and deal with people. It was great, but it was a lot of pressure. There were too many ghosts in the band. Too many guitarists had passed. And then you had another guy there were two guitarists for the first five years. It started being a battle of the guitar players, which I came to really dislike. Were you at all insecure when you went went solo?

Montoya: Oh man. I didn't think I was gonna go solo. I thought I was gonna quit the business again. I could see it coming. I wasn't happy. The music was taking turns that I didn't want to take. Of course, Albert Collins was getting very ill. He took me aside and said, I want you to leave John and start your own band. You need to be on your own. Don't wait any longer. And I thought a lot about that. For Albert to take the time to tell me that while he was dying of cancer -- it made sense. But I was afraid. So do you still see your career as in the building stage?

Montoya: All the time. I don't think it ever stops. I really don't. If I can sell a few records and make a living and eventually have me a little house somewhere, I'm a happy man. That's what I consider being successful.

And be sure to check out Coco's latest release - Dirty Deal on Alligator Records

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