Al Viola, Jazz Guitarist for Frank Sinatra
Al Viola, Jazz Guitarist: He hitched his wagon to a star named Frank Sinatra
Can we be Frank?
When my good friend and colleague Al Viola passed away in 2007 at age 87, the jazz world lost one of its greatest musicians. At 87, his nimble fingers were as fast as ever. He was as agile as a teenager – only far more musically learned – and his “chops” were so strong that you could hardly see his hands move. After many, many gigs together I worked with him for the last time several weeks before he died, and he never missed a note. He played as beautifully as when he’d been at the top of his career, a first-call Los Angeles studio musician in a small league that barely exists anymore – at a time when jazz guitar was pure and real musicians played real music. At the center of the Frank Sinatra “sound” for nearly thirty years, his guitar work was on almost every one of Sinatra’s albums from 1956 until 1980.
Al played rhythm guitar in the Sinatra band because it was what Sinatra wanted. He also played rhythm in my band, but was also pretty much an entire orchestra all by himself when he wanted to be. He wasn’t overly fond of playing rhythm guitar, but humored me because it gave us exactly the swing presence we loved in small combo rather than big band formation. He was very versatile; his smoothly legato style translated into lyrical bossa novas, standards, swing, tender ballads and his own version of flamenco. Al Viola was a chameleon, the consummate studio musician. When he died, NPR called to interview me and I got to tell them that and hear the interview played around the world.
Al recorded with “Weird Al” Yankovic, Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Natalie Cole, Linda Ronstadt and many others. The famously difficult-to-record Julie London was putty in his accomplished accompanying hands. That’s Al on the West Side Story and Blazing Saddles soundtracks, singing and playing with Page Cavanaugh in Doris Day movies and so much more.
He played on Sinatra’s Academy Award-winning recording of “All The Way,” and on hundreds of albums. He worked with everyone who was anyone in the 1950s and 1960s – and helped a lot of people have hit records. Those haunting mandolin lines in “The Godfather” theme for that movie’s soundtrack, which also won an Academy Award – that’s Al Viola.
I liked to kid around with him onstage, telling the audience that while the mandolin was in a museum in Reseda I’d refused to let them have Al. It was always a joy to hear him playing his famous Gibson or handmade acoustic (the one Sinatra had commissioned for him in Spain in 1962) behind me in his inimitable conversational style, holding down the time, playing his signature style of fat “passing chords” and creating harmonic substitutions that could take your breath away.
Years after providing several guitar tracks on the Sinatra/Jobim album initially credited to Antonio Carlos Jobim, Al was finally given formal acknowledgement for his work.
Al credited his longevity with his enormous capacity for red wine. He drank a lot of it. He also took good care of himself. His wife of more than half a century, Glenna, took good care of him, too. And he took good care of us, the lucky ones who got to work with him.
Bobby Troup, the pianist and composer best known for writing “Route 66,” used to say that if Al was your friend you really didn’t need any others.
We did concerts and shows and so many wonderful things together, and for the last ten years of his life he was a big part of mine. What Bobby Troup had said about his loyalty as a friend went for Al the musician, too. If Al was in your band, you didn’t need anybody else. He could strum and pluck you out of any corner you’d boxed yourself into.
During Frank Sinatra’s 1962 tour to benefit UNICEF, Sinatra (whom Al fondly called “The Old Man”) turned to him one night in Paris and — with no other clue to the band than a few asides to the audience about an un-named Cole Porter tune he was about to sing — gave Al “the look” usually thrown to pianist Bill Miller indicating that he was ready to do his once-a-night specialty, a duet. From the spoken cues, Al could tell that Sinatra was leading into “Night and Day,” but he’d never played it alone with him before, and since it was usually improvised on this tour with Bill Miller on piano, there was no chart. Al was racking his brain trying to come up with the right key in which to start setting it up when he remembered hearing Sinatra do the tune with Bill Miller at Jilly Rizzo’s club in New York a few weeks earlier. Possibly a split second passed, and before Sinatra had finished his sentence, Al was already playing the introduction – in the right key. It was a very famous moment in the concert career of Francis Albert Sinatra. The concert was live, and Sinatra had taped it. Eventually, it would be released as “Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris.” Immediately after “Night and Day” ended, Sinatra talked about Al, calling him one of the greatest guitarists in the world: “If you didn’t know better you’d swear it was an octopus.”
The Los Angeles Times editor who wrote Al’s obituary and knew about the UNICEF tour concert – and the iconic Sinatra/Viola duet – asked me why, on the night of June 7, 1962 in Paris, Sinatra had turned to Al instead of having Bill Miller accompany him on “Night and Day.”
The reason was simple. Sinatra had noticed during the first set that the piano was out of tune. Al, however, was playing a very IN tune guitar, the exquisite Spanish one which Sinatra had presented to him on the tour. Sinatra knew that Al would have no trouble improvising an introduction and accompanying him perfectly on that song — or any song. Al knew thousands of tunes and was always ready for the challenge of learning new material.
He played rock & roll with me often on our gigs, which would have been frowned upon by be-bop guys and hardcore jazzers. “Just don’t tell nobody,” he would say, in his best menacing Brooklyn tone.
If he heard something once, he could play it. He had perfect pitch, perfect “time” – and he knew the history of songs, composers and the words to everything. It was just about impossible to “stump” him.
He was a night owl, a New York boy who never adjusted to the time difference in Los Angeles. He loved to stay up all night, moving over to play the piano on an empty stage after the audience was gone and the rest of the band had long ago deserted us. “Hey, Cookie.” he’d say. “Remember this one?”
One night, watching the Cole Porter musical movie Kiss Me Kate for the hundredth time, it dawned on me that one of the oddly-dressed musicians in Ann Miller’s “It’s Too Darned Hot” scene was Al.
“You’ve been holding out on me,” I teased him.
“Oh yeah? Are you sure it was me?”
“You think I wouldn’t recognize you even with black hair, and in a matador suit?”
“Don’t tell nobody,” he said.
People used to ask Al why he hadn’t pursued a career as a virtuoso guitarist or sought more personal fame. “I hitched my wagon to a star named Sinatra,” he would say. “It took me all over the world, and I made a good living and had a great career.”
Al was a purist in all things, from his love of the music, good jokes, good wine and good food, the respect he paid to the composer and the melody to his loyalty, integrity and desire to make things easier for those around him, not harder.
His legacy is enormous, yet he was modest and gentle, generous with his talent and a joy to be around. The first thing he ever said to me, on the first gig we did together years ago, was: “Where do you want me to sit, Cookie?”
I still can’t believe you’re gone, Al. I thought you’d be here forever.
Talk soon, ok?
Al Viola has left the building.
Don’t tell nobody.
Guitarist Al Viola performed on more than 500 studio recordings, including dozens with Frank Sinatra, and played the iconic mandolin passages on The Godfather soundtrack.
Bandleader and jazz singer Judy Chamberlain can be reached at or 817-251-4809