BluesWax Sittin' In With Coco Montoya
Make no doubt about that intense look in Coco Montoya's eyes when you see him live on stage, as that fire-eyed stare matches the heat of his very intense playing. Of all of the hard rocking guitarists on the scene, few manage to create as effectively as Mr. Montoya, his jamming explorations continue to impress as each year passes. If you have not seen a Coco Montoya performance you are really missing something very special.
By Bob Putignano
In a previous conversation a frustrated Montoya mentioned that after several rejected demos his latest CD (Dirty Deal was produced by Little Feat's Paul Barrere and is Montoya's third recording for Alligator) has finally been released, which offers yet another nod to Montoya's old boss, mentor, and dear friend Albert Collins. Montoya's affiliation with Barrere and members of Little Feat goes all the way back to the late 1970s, but more about that later.
All in all Montoya has released eight recordings under his name, five for Blind Pig and the balance with Alligator, and surprisingly none were live recordings. Is any label listening? Montoya got his first break when he was hired as a drummer for the late, great Albert Collins during the mid 1970s, a band affiliation that ran for almost five years and a friendship that lasted till Collins' last days. By the early 1980s Montoya was back in the clubs, playing guitar with regional bands. On one occasion he realized that John Mayall was in the audience and dedicated a cover of "All Your Love" to the British Blues master. This prompted Mayall to hire Montoya as his lead guitarist, Montoya jumped at the opportunity. Coco Montoya's first album with Mayall's Bluesbreakers appeared in 1985, the live album Behind the Iron Curtain. Montoya recorded three studio albums with Mayall then went out on his own in the mid 1990s when he signed with Blind Pig, where Montoya made his solo debut with Gotta Mind to Travel in 1995 with guest appearances from Mayall and another Collins alumnus, Debbie Davies.
I recently caught up with Coco Montoya at a radio recording session at WFDU in Teaneck, New Jersey, while he was in between two New York/New Jersey dates at B.B. King's and Mexicali Blues. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:
Bob Putignano for BluesWax: You obviously took a lot from the Albert Collins sound from your days while you were in his band.
Coco Montoya: Albert was all about feel, with all his heart, that's how he played. I was with Albert for about four and a half years as his drummer, we were like father and son and I got to spend a lot of quality time with him both on and off the road, all the way till his death. Albert was a great man. Every record I've done has a Albert Collins tune on it and I plan to continue to do that as long as I can, as I want to keep his name out there for the young players, as well as his fans. It's no secret that my inspiration comes from Albert and the young kids can benefit a lot from listening to Albert. Albert is a must for anyone wanting to learn about Blues. He's a keystone in the whole scheme of things! He was always stretching, learning, and had he lived longer I feel we would have heard a whole lot more about the far-reaching abilities of Albert. I never heard anybody who could tear your head off with all the energy, enthusiasm, and the vibe Albert created. Albert used to tell me, "Find your own identity, take what I've taught you and apply it." And that is what I am doing, not note for note, but I try to capture the essence and interpret.
"Albert used to tell me,'Find your own identity,
take what I've taught you and apply it.'"
BW: How did you get to know Paul Barrere and the guys from Little Feat?
CM: In the Eighties I connected with Paul when he had the Bluesbusters, with Freebo, too and I'd hung around Richie Hayward and Kenny Gradney since around "79 when we used to be at the Central Club in Hollywood. Little Feat had freshly broken up and we'd do gigs down at Venice Beach together. Thirty-dollar gigs [laughs], passing the hat around and we had a ball. I feel I have a lot of different influences from various styles of music. For example, I'm a big doo-wop fan, which I would record if the label would allow me! Additionally I love all the Stax and Soul stuff, needless to say the old Rock bands, too, which were rooted in Blues, like Clapton who really influences me, and, hey, I steal from the best! [laughs]
BW: Earlier you told me a story about Carlos Santana regarding the track you did for the Tone Center label recording Viva Carlos!
CM: Yeah, I did "Jungle Strut." Jeff Richman, the producer, who's also a great guitar player himself, asked me to record that track. At first I was a little hesitant and thought this was not in my ballpark, plus rhythm tracks were done by some great Jazz guys like drummer Dave Weckl and bassist Abe Laboriel, and others, but I really had to really woodshed before I felt I could pull off doing justice to this track.
BW: I thought the Santana track was fabulous and that you really fit in perfectly with those players, plus it was great to hear you play in a different zone. Would you go back to doing something like that again?
CM: I thought I was out of my comfort zone, but it was fun and different, I also felt it was very healthy for me to do. I'm not sure if I will do something like this again, time will tell. But the classiest thing that came from this recording is that Carlos Santana heard it and sent me white roses and told me he really liked what I did. I thought that was really a class act for Carlos to do that. Looking back it really was a honor to be selected to do a Santana song as Carlos is a icon and he's what we all strive to do in creating our own unique sound and identity. You hear one note from Carlos and you know who it is.
BW: Do you keep in touch with Mayall?
CM: I haven't seen John for about three years. It's hard because we are both on the road a lot. He's an amazing man. I wouldn't be here doing what I do if it wasn't for guys like Mayall and Collins. I owe a lot to both of them. John is very meticulous about how he wants things to be, he has vision and knows what he wants to do. Once he sees things he goes for it and he cannot be detoured. He directs very well and that is just one of many talents he has. Mayall taught me how to be organized. Did you know when he first came over to the States that he stayed at Frank Zappa's house?
BW: No, but that's probably where he met Sugarcane Harris?
CM: Don Sugarcane Harris. Here's something a lot of people don't know about. When Walter Trout left Mayall's band, John brought back Sugarcane to be a part his band again and we all rehearsed together and I said, "Oh, we're going to add a violin?" But it was wow, phenomenal. Sugarcane was incredible. I don't know how many people know that Sugarcane had a little habit, so much so Mayall would keep his violin so he wouldn't pawn it. So we got everything worked out, everyone was excited and when we went to go on tour and Sugarcane doesn't show up. We had photo shots, everything was all set, but it was the band that never was.
BW: I know Harvey Mandel's crew pretty well and they told me that when they did that Pure Food & Drug Act LP Choice Cuts, Sugarcane did not show at the LP release party, which really ticked off the Epic label bigwigs. So your story does not surprise me, as obviously he had this kind of reputation. Do you have copies of those rehearsals with Sugarcane?
CM: As organized as Mayall is I suspect he has the tapes. He always recorded the rehearsals. Those rehearsals with Sugarcane were frightening, he was so good. Sugarcane sang a Blues tune that scared the hell out of me and his violin playing was amazing. I am not a big violin fan but Sugarcane made it work!
Note: Afterwards I did a little research about the Mayall, Sugarcane, Montoya band that Montoya was talking about and there is a CD available with all the above mentioned players titled Cross Country Blues on One Way Records. Must be out of print as versions were selling for around fifty bucks on Amazon.com!
BW: Sugarcane was with Johnny Otis...
CM: Johnny Otis was also a big influence on me. There used to be a Johnny Otis TV show that I used to watch, with Esther Phillips, Cleanhead. I was a little boy and my family would always watch the show. I was glued to the TV! That TV show is why we did one of Otis' tunes, "Casting My Spell." I dedicate that tune to Johnny Otis who was just incredible. Actually, there are a couple of other Johnny Otis songs I would still love to do. I got to meet him in Japan once where I had to thank him for all of the influences he gave me.
Bob turning to you: So there you have it, here is to more rocking Blues from Mr. Montoya, who I still hope one day will release a live CD. Come to think of it, make that a double!
Bob Putignano is a contributing editor at BluesWax. You may contact Bob at: firstname.lastname@example.org or via his web site at: www.SoundsofBlue.com
Bob Putignano www.SoundsofBlue.com
Radio Host WFDU's "Sounds of Blue"
President of the NY Blues and Jazz Society