His Mentor's Voice
Having studied at the feet of the great Albert Collins, Coco Montoya keeps pushing on.
Thursday, August 9, 2001
People who closely follow the blues know the story of Coco Montoya''s connection to the legendary guitarist Albert Collins. Or they think they do. They know Collins was Montoya''s musical mentor--that the master took a young rock ''n'' roll drummer and transformed him into a great blues guitarist. And as far as it goes, there''s nothing wrong with that story.
But when you talk to Montoya, a deeper truth is revealed. You listen to him talk, and the relationship sounds a lot more like a father-and-son connection than a mere bandleader-and-protégé thing. And the stuff that Montoya learned from Collins sounds a lot more like life than music.
"I got a lot of road smarts from Albert when I was kid," Montoya says. "I learned what it was like to have a music you were one of the originators of, and you get treated so badly. Like watching a lot of white musicians making money off the music he invented.
"I got privy to his world--that was on a personal level. Musically, there was an incredible wealth of information, but that''s not something we thought about, it was just something we did."
The story starts out in a small Culver City nightclub in the early ''70s. Montoya was playing drums in a southern California bar band, and after one show, he left his drum kit set up overnight. Collins was slated for an afternoon show the next day, and when Montoya went to retrieve his gear, he found that the bar owner had given Collins permission to use it. Montoya was pissed. But Collins talked to him, and told him he could sit in with the band on a few songs, so Montoya gave his OK.
A couple months later, the phone rang and it was Albert Collins on the line, asking Montoya if he''d care to join the band on tour. The drummer, Larry "Spider" Daniels, had just quit and Collins was desperate.
"I said, ''Yeah, I''d love to do,''" Montoya recalls. "I thought we would have a couple weeks of rehearsal but he said, ''No, I''m coming to get you in a couple hours.'' I had to call the guys I was playing with, and I said ''I don''t want to hang you up, but... ''"
It''s the kind of adventure that''s easier to take when you''re 21.
"When I was working with Albert, I was making $45 a night, and that was fine. If we made 75 to 80 bucks at a festival, that was great. That and a half pint, and you''re laughing.
"I bought my first flask in ''73. I had a flask in my pocket and I thought ''Yeah, now I''m a real bluesman.''"
Of course, the flask doesn''t make the bluesman. It''s the stuff that happens off the stage and on the road that has a lot more to do with it. It''s discovering the reality of racism, that there were still places that wouldn''t book a black musician. It''s dealing with the critics, both inside and outside the blues field, who don''t think your music is "bluesy" enough. It''s finding out that the music business looks a lot less glamorous in the daytime than it looks under nightclub lights. And it''s learning how to handle all of it without losing sight of the music.
"I watched Albert deal with frustration in many ways," Montoya says. "One way was drink--we all drank. But I watched him persevere. I watched him go through it and still put on a great show. But mostly it was the great inner strength that he had. I''d get so frustrated for him that I''d want to give up, But he''d say ''No, you have to keep going.''"
For five years, until disco''s insurgent popularity made it difficult for the band to find work, Montoya kept going with Collins. Then he quit and spent the next few years tending bar, playing guitar more as a hobby than anything else.
Then one night in the early ''80s, Montoya was jamming in a small club when the British blues-rocker John Mayall walked in. A few months later, Montoya was back on the road, this time with Mayall. He stayed with Mayall for 10 years, and all the while he kept in touch with Collins.
"I used to get off the road with John," says Montoya, "go wash some clothes and call Albert. Then I''d fly out to where he was. He was like a dad to me. For us, it was just time together. I just went out there and played guitar with him."
Collins died in 1993, at about the same time Montoya was embarking on his solo career. During the last eight years, Montoya has experienced about as much success as a bluesman can hope to find. Even so, Montoya, who will turn 50 in October, does not expect to see the kind of adulation that is now stalking a guy like Jonny Lang.
"At my age, I''m not going to worry about an 18-year-old girl having dreams about me," he says. "It''s not that you don''t want a hit, that would be lovely, but to think that I have the same chances as a young boy, that''s just not going to happen. I''m not going to be on MTV anytime soon."
Despite his awareness of the limitations he faces, you can almost hear Montoya''s mentor in the background, telling him to persevere.
"I''m not going to let the business dictate to me what they think I should do in order to be a hit," he says. "If it''s stuff that I love playing, then it''s worth doing. Damn the blues Nazis. Damn the blues critics. And if you don''t like it, I''m prepared to live with that."