Long ago, Albert Collins took a young Coco Montoya aside and told him, “Son, just play what’s in your heart.” That has been Coco’s mantra as he’s toured the world cultivating fans with his intense music and warm personality.
The advice for Coco’s Ruf Records debut is, “Son, just sing what’s in your heart.” From the opening riffs, Coco Montoya has shed the familiar and is ready to challenge himself and his audience. His first words unveil a voice that possesses as much soul as his guitar. That leap of faith, to trust in his voice, came at suggestion of Coco’s friend and three time Grammy winning artist Keb’ Mo’.
Working together, Keb’ encouraged Coco’s intimate vocal delivery to articulate the story. The world knows Coco as the blazing guitarist who nightly transforms genuine human emotions into eloquent notes that connect with the hearts of his audience. By developing Coco’s vocal vulnerability backed by his aching guitar for the emotional reference, these songs connect faster than any records Coco has previously recorded.
“People know where I’m at with the guitar, but here the vocals are being concentrated on,” said Coco. “There will certainly be guitar, but the focus has been on song structure and my vocals.
“I think it’s healthy to take chances. It’s being able to humble myself and take direction and guidance. As co-producers, Keb’ and Jeff Paris have been working extensively with my vocals. I’m very proud of the performance they’re getting outta me.”
Keb’s job in the studio as co-producer was to sharpen Coco’s singing while keeping his human compassion and gracious touch. “I want to make a record where the audience can get to know Coco as more then just a guitar player,” said Keb’. “I think he has a great voice, but in the past, he’s used his voice as a way to get to his guitar playing. Here, the vocals have to be taken seriously for what they are, the most important part of the record.”
Though Montoya’s one of the best finding emotion on the fretboard, he also possesses a soulful and expressive voice. At times, the quivering vibrato he wraps around words breathes a heartfelt vulnerability into a song’s fragile pleas; other times his voice will steam roll like a heavyweight’s knock-out punch.
From that starting point, Coco and Keb’ began to search out songs to best fit Coco’s voice and spirit, songs that spotlight Montoya’s distinctive, aching tenor. They started with tunes wrapped in nostalgia of 45 records. Mary Wells’ “The One That Really Loves You,” The Penguins’ “Hey Senorita,” and Coco’s most daring song, the Marvelettes’s stylish sixties soul tune “Forever.” They called in Rod and Honey Piazza to deliver the blues Coco loves on Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae.”
But at the same time, Coco lives in the musical verses of today’s fresh experiences. And as an artist, he always searches for new ways to express his own personal growth in a way to reach people’s hearts.
The opening song “I Want It All Back,” by Coco’s friend and writing partner David Steen, is a joyous showcase of this fresh outlook. Add two songs, “Cry Lonely” and “As Close As I Have Come,” by Nashville’s Gary Nicholson, another songster Coco has found an affinity with, two from Jeff Paris, and a modern take on Jackson Browne’s bouncy “Somebody’s Baby” and you’ll hear Coco’s pure voice and torrid guitar as never before.
With his producer’s hat on, Keb’ said, “It’s a delicate balance of trust in the studio. Coco was listening to us, but it’s just as important for us to listen to him. If we lose his voice in the process, we lose the record.”
That balance and compromise in the studio between Coco and Keb’ is immediately apparent in that here musicians were taking chances and making the creative decisions
The essence of the blues is purest when one person connects with another from the heart. Only a select few are born with that talent. Most spend a lifetime searching for that unique ability. From his early days in the blues as the drummer behind blues legend Albert Collins, Coco Montoya’s journey in life has been to discover that essence of the blues.
“Albert was very much a father,” says blues guitarist Coco Montoya. “The gifts I’ve received from him were soul, compassion, faith in myself, faith in the music, and how to continue on. Albert taught me blues about playing from your heart. It’s a music that you can’t chart. If your heart’s there, it’s real. That’s what keeps the blues going. Fads come and go, but the blues always stays.”
Born October 2, 1951, Coco grew up in Southern California during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Montoya was immersed in music at an early age. Whether it was his father’s big band records or his older brothers and sisters rock and roll records or the early rock and roll and doo wap that flooded AM radio, Coco took it all in with open ears. At the same time, English musicians like John Mayall and Eric Clapton were developing blues styles. “When I first heard Eric Clapton doing “Hideaway,” was my re-education into the blues.”
Seeing Albert King showed the youth how to play the blues. “I went to see Iron Butterfly and Creedence Clearwater and a guy named Albert King was playing in between them. He picked up his guitar, did “Watermelon Man,” and changed my whole life. That was the first time I heard music that came from the heart.”
Montoya is a self taught guitar slinger who plays with an emotional intensity few string benders possess. I never had a lesson in my life. “I would watch other guitar players to catch what they did. I would wait for that one moment when they would do it, and just stare at them and try and remember where their hand was, where their fingers were.”
“People ask, ‘Did you take lessons from Albert?’ It’s more from just hanging out in the hotel rooms. He would grab his guitar and I would pick up one and we’d play I just learned by listening, all by ear. I just play it the way I hear it. He was always saying, ‘Don't think about it, just feel it. I don’t know all the licks in the world, but I know the ones I can express happiness or sadness or emotion.”
From 1976 until 1984, Montoya had lost some of the feel for music and worked bartender jobs to survive. In 1984, his second mentor, John Mayall, was celebrating his birthday in a bar where Montoya was performing. Montoya’s from the hip version of “All Your Love” caught Mayall’s ear and Coco was asked to pack his Strat and follow previous Bluesbreaker guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor in the Bluesbreakers. “I would never be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t gotten the phone call from John Mayall.”
After three records with Mayall as a member of the Bluesbreakers, Coco decided in 1993 it was time to take the lessons from his two musical fathers and begin to sculpt a solo career. In the early 1990’s he was signed to Blind Pig Records and released three critically acclaimed discs, Gotta Mind To Travel, Ya Think I’d Know Better, and Just Let Go.
In the middle of his Blind Pig days, Coco also received national recognition when he was named the Blues Foundation’s Best New Blue Artist at the 1996 Blues Music Awards.
In 2000, Coco took his music up a notch and signed with Alligator Records, the country’s top blues label. In his seven years with Alligator, Coco released three more outstanding records, Suspicion, Can’t Look Back, and 2007’s Dirty Deal.
Today, in 2009, Coco Montoya has found a new home in the old world. Europe’s premier blues label, Ruf Records, signed the guitar giant and is poised to bring Coco Montoya’s heart to a world audience. I Want It All Back is the first step in that commitment.
- Hey Senorita
- I Want It All Back
- Cry Lonely
- As Close As I Have Come
- The Life Of My Broken Heart
- The One That Really Loves You
- Fannie Mae
- Don't Go Makin' Plans
- She's Gonna Need Somebody
- Somebody's Baby