Al Viola: Guitarist Hitched His Wagon to a Star Named Sinatra. Can we be Frank?
When my great good friend and musical colleague Al Viola — who played guitar on every album Frank Sinatra recorded from 1956 to 1980 — passed away last year, the jazz world lost one of its greatest musicians
At 87, his nimble fingers were as fast as ever. His “chops” were so strong that you could hardly see his hands move.
I worked with him several weeks before he died, and he never missed a note. He played as well that night as he had when he’d been at the top of his career, a Los Angeles studio musician in a small league that barely exists anymore — when music was real, and real musicians played it.
Al took good care of himself, drank a lot of red wine and never developed arthritis. His fabulous late wife Glenna took good care of him, too. And he took good care of us, the lucky ones who got to work closely with him.
He cared so much, and he gave so much of himself.
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.
Al mostly played rhythm guitar in the Sinatra band, because that was the sound that Sinatra liked. But he could play anything. Melodies, bossa novas, his own version of flamenco; he was a chameleon. He could sound like anyone or anything the job called for. Years after playing many of the tracks on the Sinatra/Jobim albums that were credited to Antonio Carlos Jobim, Al was given formal credit for his work.
He played on Sinatra’s Acadamy Award-winining song, “All The Way. And he also played the mandolin on “The Godfather” theme for that movie’s soundtrack, which won an Academy Award.
The mandolin is in a museum in Reseda. I was fond of joking onstage that while the museum might have had the mandolin, I still had Al.
It was always a thrill to hear him “comping” behind me, setting up the intros and outros, holding down the time, playing big fat passing chords and making music at such a high level that it could take your breath away.
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 bail you out of any jam.
Sinatra turned to him one night at Royal Albert Hall in Paris and, with no other warning than saying a few words to the audience about a Cole Porter tune he was about to sing — and giving Al a “look” — indicated that he wanted guitar accompaniment instead of the usual piano backup on the song. It was as subtle as that. Al had never played the song alone with Sinatra before, had never rehearsed it with him and was racking his brain trying to come up with the right key to start setting it up in. Only a split second passed before he remembered hearing Sinatra do the song, “Night and Day” with Sinatra at Jilly’s in New York a few weeks earler.
Before Sinatra had finished his sentence, Al was well into the introduction — in the right key.
It was a very famous moment in the concert litany of Francis Albert Sinatra.
The Los Angeles Times writer who worked on Al’s obituary knew about the duet and asked me why, on that night in Paris in 1962, Sinatra had turned to Al instead of having Bill Miller play “Night and Day.”
The reason was simple. Sinatra had noticed during the set that the piano at Royal Albert Hall was out of tune.
Al, however, was playing a very IN tune guitar, an exquisite handmade gut string instrument that Sinatra had just commissioned in Spain and presented to him on the tour.
Of course, Sinatra knew that Al would have no trouble “faking” an introduction and accompaniment to that song — or any song. He knew literally thousands of them, in all sorts of genres including rock and roll, which he played with me often.
“Don’t tell nobody,” he would say.
“Learn tunes,” Al would tell anyone who asked him for the “best advice” he could give aspiring musicians.
Like me, he was the ultimate “tune geek.” He loved being out on a limb with me, loved the vast repertoire, and the suspense of not knowing what I was going to do next. If he’d ever heard something, he could play it. He had perfect pitch, perfect “time” — and he knew the history and the words to everything. It was impossible to “stump” him.
He could stay up all night, moving over to play the piano on an empty stage after everyone was gone and the “younger” members of the band had long deserted us. “Hey, Cookie.” he’d say. “Remember this one? Just one more….”
The consummate studio musician, Al turned up on everybody’s records. The notoriously difficult-to-record Julie London was putty in his accompanistic hands. Wierd Al Yankovich used Al on his albums, and Paul Simon had him sweeten guitar licks on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” That’s Al on the “West Side Story” soundtrack. And “Blazing Saddles,” and so many more.
One night, yawning thru the umpteenth time I’d seen “Kiss Me Kate,” I sat bolt upright, realizing that one of the oddly-dressed musicians in the scene where Ann Miller sings and dances to “Too Darned Hot” was Al.
“I thought I knew about everything you’ve ever done, but I saw you in a movie I hadn’t known about last night,” I teased him the next day. “So you’ve been holding out on me.”
“Oh yeah?,” he shot back. “How did you know it was me?”
“You think I wouldn’t recognize you even with black hair, and in a matador suit?” I chided him.
“Don’t tell nobody,” he said.
People used to ask Al why he hadn’t more aggressively pursued a careed as a virtuoso guitarist, seeking fame and fortune for himself. He easily had the talent to have done so.
“I hitched my wagon to a star named Sinatra,” he would tell them.
“It took me all over the world, and I had a great career.”
Al never complained, never let on that he was losing his battle with cancer, even when the end was very near. He was a purist in all things, from love of the music and the homage and respect he paid to the composer and the melody to his loyalty and integrity …and his desire to make things easier for those around him, not harder.
The first thing he ever said to me, on the first gig we did together was: “Where do you want me to sit, Cookie?”
I 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.