Though he grew up as a drummer and was raised on rock & roll, Coco Montoya became an outstanding blues guitarist after stints in the bands of Albert Collins and John Mayall. Montoya debuted as a leader in 1995 with the Blind Pig album Gotta Mind to Travel and garnered an award for Best New Blues Artist at the following year's W.C. Handy Awards ceremonies.
Born in Santa Monica, Montoya played drums for a local rock band that toured the region during the mid-'70s, playing in area clubs. Although he had recently been turned on to blues at an Albert King show, he was somewhat unprepared to sit in with another blues legend -- "the Iceman" Albert Collins -- when a bar-owner friend of Montoya invited the bluesman to play at his nightclub. Though his inexperience showed, the young drummer impressed Collins enough to hire him for a Pacific Northwest tour three months later. The tour soon ended, but the pair's affiliation remained for more than five years, while Montoya learned much about the handling of blues guitar from "the Master of the Telecaster."
By the early '80s, Coco Montoya was back in the small-time nightclub business, playing guitar with several regional bands. At one night's show, he realized that John Mayall was in the audience, so he dedicated a cover of "All Your Love" to the British blues maestro. The song prompted Mayall to hire Montoya as lead guitarist for a new version of the Bluesbreakers he had formed. Despite the enormous pressure of filling a spot once held by Eric Clapton and Peter Green, Montoya jumped at the opportunity.
His first album with the Bluesbreakers came in 1985. Mayall had not released an album in five years at that point and the Bluesbreakers had been dead for more than 15, but the live album Behind the Iron Curtain proved Mayall's viability thanks mostly to the fiery work of Montoya. The guitarist appeared on three studio albums with Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, but then struck out on his own by the mid-'90s. Signed to Blind Pig, Montoya released Gotta Mind to Travel in 1995 with help from Mayall and another former Bluesbreaker compatriot, rhythm guitarist Debbie Davies.
After years of toil under Collins and Mayall, Montoya was finally in the spotlight and his award as Best New Blues Artist of 1996 proved quite ironic, given his years of experience. His second album, Ya Think I'd Know Better, was followed by 1997's Just Let Go. At that point, Montoya and Blind Pig parted company and he signed with Alligator Records. Suspicion was released in 2000, followed two years later by Can't Look Back and by Dirty Deal in 2007. All three discs incorporated a definitive soul/R&B approach. I Want It All Back, produced by Keb' Mo' and Jeff Paris, appeared in 2010. The independent blues label Ruf Records released I Want It All Back, and they followed up with a live album, Songs from the Road, in 2014. Montoya and Alligator Records partnered again to release 2017's Hard Truth. ~ John Bush & Al Campbell