Growing up in Santa Monica, California, Henry “Coco” Montoya happily immersed himself in listening to his parents’ eclectic record collection, then taking up playing the drums at age 11 and guitar at 13. But it was in 1969 at a Creedence Clearwater Revival/Iron Butterfly show in Los Angeles that he had a real musical epiphany – and not courtesy of either co-headliner.
Instead, it was opening act Albert King that blew the teenage Montoya away, setting him firmly down the blues highway. Some years later, Houston-born blues icon Albert Collins was scheduled to play a small club where Montoya’s band had been the night before. The club owner gave Collins’s band permission to use his kit, which pissed him off. Collins apologized, but the show made a huge impact on Montoya just like the other Albert did.
The connection took a different turn in 1972 when Collins needed a drummer and remembered Montoya, who was hired to fill the slot. But it wasn’t until Collins slowly moved the young player from the skins to the Strat that Coco Montoya’s future in music really took shape. He spent nearly five years on the road learning about life and music from Collins.
“Albert would tell me that his music was simple music, but sometimes simple music was harder to play,” Montoya reflects today. “And he taught me a lot of life issues. I was 20 years old and he watched over me pretty well. And he always had something smart to say that would leave me thinking. He taught me to believe in myself and have faith in what I was doing. He had a smile and a handshake for everybody.”
Montoya then left Collins’s band and the music biz in general, working “day jobs” at a warehouse and bartending. That included slinging drinks at Laurel Canyon’s famous Cat and Fiddle Pub, where he’d serve beers to musician celebrity friends of the owner like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck and Phil Collins.
But he still took part in every informal jam session he could find. In the audience at one of them was storied English blues bandleader John Mayall, who promptly hired Montoya as his lead guitarist — a slot filled in the ’60s by such amateur players as Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor. Montoya found another mentor, in music and life.
“John didn’t let anybody deter him from what his goals were,” Montoya says. “If something bad or negative came his way, it would roll off his back. If he had a mountain in his path, he’d go around it.”
Finally, in 1995, Coco Montoya launched his career as a bandleader/singer/guitarist with Gotta Mind to Travel and a hectic touring schedule he’s never abandoned. His newest effort – back on former label Alligator Records – is Hard Truth. Its 11 tracks run the gamut from hard rocking to gut-wrenching blues, including a cover of Albert Collins’s “The Moon Is Full.”
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And though he only has a co-write on one of the songs, two in particular stand out to him on a personal level: Dan Steen’s “Lost in the Bottle” and Mike Farris’s moody “Devil Don’t Sleep.”
“‘Lost’ is a very poignant thing, especially with me being sober now," says Montoya. "It spoke to me, and I was happy to get Lee Roy Parnell to play on it. ‘Devil’ was a bit of a challenge, and it took me to task to do something that raw.
“I think the concept on any record is to be able to take it somewhere else, even if it’s out of your comfort zone," he adds. "And that’s the healthiest place to go to. To find something challenging, and not formulaic.”
Coco Montoya and special guest The Mighty Orq perform Friday, May 12, at Rockefeller’s, 3620 Washington. Doors open at 8 p.m.; tickets are $25 to $125. For more on Montoya, visit cocomontoyaband.com.