Though you’d likely find his discography filed in the “Blues” section at your fine local record store, singer/guitarist Coco Montoya has since his 1995 debut record Gotta Mind to Travel shown an influence from several other genres, including a more rock sound.
That predilection is on full display with his new album, Writing on the Wall (Alligator Records). And he credits his longtime label and its head honcho Bruce Iglauer for allowing him that freedom.
“Well for me, it’s an important part of the experience to be able to draw from different influences in addition to the blues,” he says. “The blues will always be there in pretty much every facet, but there’s also other musics which have influenced me. I’m grateful that Alligator gave me some leeway here. That’s how you grow and express yourself as a musician.”
Something else different about the record is that Montoya uses his longtime live backing band in the studio, including Jeff Paris (keyboards/guitars and here, co-producer), Nathan Brown (bass) and Rena Beavers (drums).
“I’ve not done it that often, but it was the right thing and the right time. These guys have been with me quite a while,” the bandleader says. “And they really stepped up and made it happen for me. They know me, they know my strengths and weaknesses and quirks. They’re an important part of the success of this album.”
The Santa Monica, California-based Montoya actually started out playing drums as a pre-teen, becoming an in-demand skin thumper for area rock groups. But it was at a 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival/Iron Butterfly show that the course of his musical life changed. He was simply blown away by the show’s opener, legendary bluesman Albert King, who introduced him to a purer form of the genre.
In his Alligator Records bio, Montoya relives the moment more than a half century later: “My life was changed. When he played, the music went right to my soul. It grabbed me so emotionally that I had tears welling up in my eyes. Nothing had ever affected me on this level.” Coco Montoya began deeply studying the history and key players of the blues.
He was still playing drums when he had a chance encounter with another great bluesman named Albert—Albert Collins. Colllins’ drummer was in need of a kit for a club date, and Montoya had left his own at the same LA club which he let them borrow.
Soon, Montoya himself was sitting in that seat for Collins, who also began tutoring him on the guitar. Montoya then became the second onstage guitarist for "The Iceman," who definitely became a father figure. Seeking a more regular paycheck, Montoya left the Collins band to tend bar and play on the weekends. It’s then he crossed paths with yet another giant of the genre, the British singer/guitarist John Mayall.
Montoya became one of his Bluesbreakers, filling a guitar slot previously held by a few guys who one could argue knew their way around a six string: Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor. Those three would eventually move to the Yardbirds/Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and the Rolling Stones.
But both Collins and Mayall also taught Montoya a very valuable lesson, especially in a genre often weighed down by a glorious past: Be yourself.
“The way I’ve learned an applied it is to paintings. If you’re a painter and you love Rembrandt, you don’t need to copy him. It’s the same thing with music,” he says. “And the people that taught me like Albert Collins and Otis Rush both said it: find your own identity within this music. Albert used to say whether they like you or they don’t like you, they need to know that it’s you. And I’ve always followed that.”
In other words, don’t do a T-Bone Walker song like T-Bone Walker did. That’s already out there and easily accessible.
“Both Albert and John called me on the carpet a couple of times when I lost my way and was imitating too much. Especially when I was with Mayall,” Montoya continues. “John pulled me over and said ‘Hey, you’re not Clapton. Clapton’s not here and Peter Green’s not here and Mick Taylor’s not here. It’s your chair.”
The 13 tracks on Writing on the Wall run the gamut from traditional blues and jump blues and shuffles to uptempo rock with a few slow burners. One of the standouts is the metaphorical gambling song “A Chip and a Chair.” It’s one of those with a theme of multi-generational father-son advice a’la Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County” or Clarence Carter’s “Patches.” Though this time it’s with a grandfather and grandson.
“That was written by an incredible songwriter Dave Steen and his son, Drew. The story I heard is [Drew] got a little too used to gambling for a minute and got away with it, but needed to clean it up,” Montoya says. “And that saying was his: ‘Hey dad, as long as you got a chip and a chair, you’re still in the game!’ And Dave said ‘Oh, we’ve got to go with that!’”
Another highlight is the joyous “Baby, You’re a Drag.” It’s a duet with Ronnie Baker Brooks, himself the son of the late bluesman (and Montoya’s Alligator stablemate), Lonnie Brooks. The pair’s call-and-response in vocals and guitar licks were recorded with both men in the same room.
“That one was pretty much off the cuff, just joking around and having fun. I’ve known Ronnie since he was a teenager!” Montoya laughs.
“I’d see Lonnie all the time and he was one of the guys who were very giving and father-like. They see you doing something that could cause you grief down the road, and they had no problem pulling you aside and telling you that. Sometimes, the advice was given to me rough, but that’s what I needed!”
Montoya vividly recalls Albert King “chewing him out” for “half-stepping”—or not giving his all to his playing out of laziness or moodiness. “Of course, Albert King was one of the moodiest cats in the world!” Montoya laughs. “God bless him!”
And “The Three Kings and Me,” finds Montoya lonely and broken hearted on Christmas Eve, with only the “three kings” to keep him company on his stereo. Those would be the gift-giving wise men with a shared surname and the first names of Freddie, Albert, and B.B. It’s another Dave Steen tune and one that the late Dr. John was originally going to cut, but never did.
Finally, I note to Montoya that he and I share the same birthday of October 2. Also born on that particular date were three very diverse but influential-in-their-fields men of the 20th century: Indian politician and activist Mahatma Gandhi, movie and TV funnyman Groucho Marx, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and former Policeman Sting.
So, if Coco Montoya could invite just one of them over to share a birthday cake with him, who would it be? And why?
“That’s a great question!” Montoya laughs. “Well, I’d obviously love to be with Groucho and let him hold court with just me. But with Gandhi, there’s a lot of interesting things in the world and life itself I’d like to know what he thought of. Uh, sorry, Sting!”
But if all three came to the party, then Montoya could learn about jokes, spirituality, and Tantric Sex!
“Well, the Tantric Sex, I don’t need to know about that anymore. I’m 71 years old!” Montoya laughs. He does know which one of the three would be the cheapest dinner date, though.
“That would be Gandhi. He’d probably just have a salad. I’d pick up the tab on that one!”
For more on Coco Montoya, visit CocoMontoyaBand.com
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.