When your teacher and mentor is iconic blues guitarist Albert Collins, you listen. That’s what guitar virtuoso and soul-deep singer Coco Montoya did when Collins told him to “Just play what you feel, be real about it and enjoy yourself.” In a career spanning more than five decades, Montoya has followed that advice. Self-taught and left-handed, he learned from Collins and John Mayall while putting his own stamp on every song.
Henry “Coco” Montoya was born in Santa Monica, California, into a working-class family. Growing up, he listened to his parents’ collection of big band, jazz, salsa, doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll. His first love was the drums and he got his first set at eleven. He got a guitar two years later. “I’m sure the Beatles had something to do with this,” he said. “I wanted to make notes as well as beats.”
Guitar, though, remained Montoya’s secondary instrument, turning his love for drumming into a profession and playing in area rock bands while in his teens. He became an in-demand drummer and then, in 1969, he saw Albert King open a Creedence Clearwater Revival/Iron Butterfly concert. He was transformed. “After King got done playing, my life was changed,” Montoya said. “When he played, the music went right into my soul. It grabbed me so emotionally that I had tears welling up in my eyes. Nothing had ever affected me to this level. He showed me what music and playing the blues were all about. I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
In the mid-1970s, Montoya had a chance meeting with Albert Collins. “Albert was coming through Los Angeles and needed to borrow my drum set, which I left at the club where he was going to be playing,” he said. “I went down to see his show that night and it just tore my head off. The thing that I had seen and felt with Albert King came pouring back on me when I saw Albert Collins.”
Collin hired Montoya as his drummer and mentored him on the guitar. “We’d sit in hotel rooms for hours and play guitar,” Montoya said. “He’d play that beautiful rhythm of his and just have me play along. He was like a father to me. Collins called Montoya “his son” and Montoya learned everything he could from the man known as the “Master of the Telecaster.”
Needing a more regular paycheck, Montoya took a job tending bar and jamming on weekends. Legendary British musician John Mayall heard him playing Otis Rush’s All Your Love (I Miss Loving). Soon after, Mayall asked Montoya to join the famous Bluesbreakers, filling the shoes of previous Bluesbreakers guitarists like Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor. For the next ten years, Montoya toured the world and recorded with Mayall on seven albums.
Montoya’s debut as a bandleader came in 1995 with Gotta Mind to Travel. The album became an instant fan favorite and made it clear that Montoya ranked among the best players on the contemporary scene. Two more albums quickly followed.
In 2000, Montoya’s album, Suspicion, exploded onto the scene and his fan base grew exponentially. After two more highly successful albums: 2002’s Can’t Look Back and 2007’s Dirty Deal on Alligator, Montoya signed with Ruf Records, cutting several albums. He returned to Alligator in 2017 with Hard Truth and in 2019 with Coming in Hot. The UK’s Blues Matters commented that “Montoya unleashes one career-topping performance after another.”
His latest album, Writing on the Wall, features 13 tracks, five of which were written or co-written by Montoya. Despite his busy recording schedule, Montoya remains a “road warrior,” touring virtually non-stop around the world. He has a reputation for his live performances, with Billboard saying, “In a world of blues guitar pretenders, Coco Montoya is the real McCoy. He exudes power and authority. Be prepared to get scorched by the real thing.”
Come play with fire.