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John Mayall's Latest Guitarist Outlasts Some of the Bluesbreakers' Greatest

June 30, 1988|Mike Boehm

As a guitarist for John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Coco Montoya is part of a singular musical lineage.

In the mid- to late-1960s, the succession of players Mayall recruited for his band virtually defined the blues-rock guitar sound. The Bluesbreakers turned out guitar greats the way the New York Yankees used to turn out Hall of Fame outfielders. There was Eric Clapton, the Babe Ruth of the electric guitar, followed by Peter Green, who later led the original Fleetwood Mac, followed by Mick Taylor, who received the Mayall seasoning on his way to the Rolling Stones.

When those titans were passing through Mayall's band, Montoya was a Los Angeles teen-ager. But on a recent tour of Germany, Mayall, a meticulous keeper of musical data, casually mentioned to Montoya that, in one respect, he had surpassed them all: longevity.

"John just told me, 'You're holding the record.' " Montoya, who isn't sure which Mayall alumnus previously held it, recently passed his fourth anniversary as a Bluesbreaker. He'll notch another show tonight when the Bluesbreakers play at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.

For Montoya, 36, it all goes back to Clapton. Like a lot of American kids in the 1960s, Clapton's screaming solos with Cream were the first blues-guitar strains he heard. When a friend sent him back to the first Bluesbreakers album, with Clapton wailing in a form closer to pure blues, Montoya was hooked.

"I was blown away. I'd never known anything like the blues at that time. When I heard Eric, that was it for me. He was my hero and still is."

As Montoya reminisced Tuesday in his apartment in Van Nuys, he sat on an amplifier originally used by Mick Taylor during a 1982 reunion tour with Mayall. Guitars, guitar carrying cases, amplifiers and home-recording equipment took up much of the living room. (It's a two-guitarist household. Montoya's girlfriend, Debbie Davies, plays the blues as a member of Albert Collins' band.) The other main furnishing was Montoya's record and tape collection. On the carpet, at the front of a stack of LPs, was "Crossroads," the recently released Clapton career retrospective.

"I've gotten to play with a lot of my idols," the big, affable Montoya said as he recounted high points of his Bluesbreakers tenure. But aside from a brief, awkward exchange of "hellos" backstage years ago at the Santa Monica Civic Center during Clapton's Derek and the Dominoes days, he has never met his No. 1 idol.

"I don't know if I'd have the guts to play with the guy," Montoya said. "He's the only one who scares me, because he's been larger than life to me all these years. He shies away from people who consider him a hero, and I can't help but consider him a hero."

Montoya is on much more comfortable terms with another leading blues guitar player, Albert Collins.

Collins gave Montoya his first break 15 years ago after he found him playing drums in a Top 40 band at a club in Culver City. Two or three months later, Collins called and asked Montoya to become his drummer.

"I was not a good drummer at the time," said Montoya, who took up the drums at 11 but always dabbled with the guitar as well. "I could not shuffle my way out of a paper bag. I think he was just stuck for a drummer."

Collins became Montoya's friend and tutor during the next four years of scuffling on a tough, low-paying club circuit. Montoya says he calls him "dad," and Collins, in turn, is one of the few people who call Montoya by his given name, Henry. ("Coco" was a nickname pinned on him by a fan of the Collins band.)

After his years with Collins, Montoya opted for a more reliable living, first with an electronics company, then as a bartender. But after hours he played guitar in club bands for fun.

Five years ago, he was playing in a Hollywood club when Mayall came in. When Montoya heard that Mayall was celebrating his 50th birthday, he played an old Bluesbreakers number in his honor. A few months later, Mayall called and asked him to join the Bluesbreakers. (Actually, Montoya said, Mayall had to call twice--Montoya hung up the first time because he thought it was a prank call.)

The regimen involves about 125 shows a year, Montoya said. So far, it has also included two live albums in which he alternates solos with the Bluesbreakers' other guitarist, Walter Trout: 1985's "Behind the Iron Curtain" and "The Power of the Blues," a 1987 album released in Germany. A new studio album, "Chicago Line," is ready for release, but Montoya said Mayall is still negotiating a record deal. .

Between tours with Mayall, he fronts his own band, which makes regular stops at Bogart's in Long Beach (they'll play there July 9) and the Sunset Pub in Sunset Beach (Montoya will be there for a Sunday afternoon show July 17).

Montoya said guitarists turn up regularly at Bluesbreakers gigs, looking to end his record tenure. Call it the gunslinger aspect of being a guitar ace.

"Guys want to be in the band really bad. Guys will walk up right past you and give (Mayall) a tape and say, 'I'm a great player. Call me.' Some will even be bold enough to say, 'I'm better than what you've got.' "

But Montoya is confident that, until he decides to go on his own full time, he'll be able to extend the record for Bluesbreakers longevity. "As long as it's fun, as long as John and I are both enjoying it, we'll keep doing it."

John Mayall's Bluesbreakers will play at 8 tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $15. Information: (714) 496-8930.

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