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Guitarist Goes From Sideman to Center Stage

Coco Montoya nabbed a '95 award as best new blues artist, but he's no newcomer. See him at B. B. King's.


"What a long, strange trip it's been," sang Jerry Garcia in the quintessential Grateful Dead song "Truckin.' "

Coco Montoya, who performs Friday and Saturday at B. B. King's, knows what Garcia was talking about. He has spent a considerable period of his musical life on the road--first as a sideman and now front and center.

It's ironic, Montoya says, that he won a W.C. Handy Award as 1995's best new blues artist, since he's been performing the blues for well over two decades.

Montoya spent almost a decade playing lead guitar for John Mayall's Bluesbreakers--following in the footsteps of such guitar greats as Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. Back in the 1970s, he toured extensively with blues great Albert Collins, but he wasn't playing guitar.

He may now play like he had a guitar in his hands before he could use a fork, but he started out as a drummer.

Montoya, 44, grew up in Santa Monica listening to a wide range of music--Mexican, country and western, R & B. But like a lot of people his age, it was the Beatles and other rock bands of the mid-1960s that really turned him on. He started playing the drums and developed an early love of the blues.

"All of the musicians my age got turned on to the blues by the British rock artists," he says. "This was American music, but we threw it away and the British brought it back to the surface."

While working as a drummer with Collins on the road in the '70s, Montoya started playing guitar as a hobby. During long, boring afternoons in countless motel rooms, Montoya says Collins showed him "a few things" on his new instrument.

Back in the 1970s, however, disco was big, and the money for blues musicians was not. Thinking he had gone about as far as he would go as a musician, Montoya quit music and got a job as a shipping and receiving manager for an electronics firm.

During his almost eight-year hiatus on the shipping dock, Montoya continued playing the guitar--and eventually started going out to jam and occasionally gig as a guitarist. In 1983, blues man Mayall heard Montoya play and invited him to join a new version of the Bluesbreakers.

For almost 10 years, Montoya toured the world with the Bluesbreakers. Encouraged by his mentor Collins, who was then dying of cancer, Montoya left the Mayall band and struck out on his own in 1993.

His debut album, 1995's "Gotta Mind to Travel," was nominated for a a Handy Award as best contemporary blues album of 1995. Montoya's current album, "Ya Think I'd Know Better," which was produced by Grammy-winner Jim Gaines, has also been received favorably.

Montoya, who now lives in Woodland Hills, still spends a lot of time on the road. Only now, he's out front. The band that will accompany him this weekend includes keyboardist Benny Yee, bassist Steve Ehrmann and drummer Marty Binder.

* Coco Montoya plays Friday and Saturday nights at B. B. King's, Universal CityWalk. $14 cover. Call (818) 622-5464.


Steppin' Up: Anyone who's been out to the Cowboy Palace Saloon on a Wednesday evening for the talent contest has probably heard Chad Watson. The tall, affable singer who usually hosts the program also lays down some of the tastiest country bass playing this side of I-don't-know-where.

Watson, who has worked for many years as a sideman for such acts as Janis Ian, Charlie Rich, Ronnie Milsap and the Flying Burrito Brothers, has finally put out his first CD, performing and singing his own material. And tonight, the Cowboy Palace Saloon is having a CD release party to celebrate the blessed event.

* Chad Watson's CD release party at 8:30 p.m. at the Cowboy Palace Saloon, 21635 Devonshire St., Chatsworth. No cover. Call (818) 341-0166.

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