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Longtime Sinatra Guitarist Al Viola Dies at 87

Al Viola, frequent Frank Sinatra collaborator, died at his Los Angeles home Wednesday, Feb. 21. His wife confirmed he died of cancer. He was 87.

Viola first met Sinatra as a guitarist in the Page Cavanaugh Trio. During World War II, Cavanaugh and Viola were stationed together in the army in Sacramento. At the war’s end, they formed the trio with bassist Lloyd Pratt. After hearing the group in Los Angeles in the late ’40s, Sinatra was so taken with the trio that he decided to fly them out to the East Coast for performances in New York and Atlantic City.

In 1949, Viola decided to quit the trio, opting to head back to L.A. as a studio musician. During his years as a studio player, Viola played with an incredible variety of musicians: big-band groups (Harry James, Ray Anthony, Les Brown), jazz artists (Buddy Collette, Red Callendar, Bobby Troup) and other popular acts (Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt, Marvin Gaye)-in total he appears on over 500 albums. Around the same time of his early studio work, he also pursued further musical studies at the California Academy of Music, learning classical guitar, harmony and music theory.

Viola’s playing has been featured on a number of film soundtracks, most notably the mandolin parts in The Godfather, but also in Blazing Saddles, West Side Story, Cool Hand Luke and many others.

While working with Bobby Troup in the mid-’50s, Viola and Sinatra got in touch again. Sinatra needed a guitarist; Viola was glad to comply. The two would continue to work together throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and in 1973, Viola even accompanied Sinatra to the White House for a concert.

“What I enjoyed most about working with Frank is that he was unpredictable,” Viola recalled in an interview on his website. “When I accompanied him, I couldn’t quite predict where he was going, which made it challenging and exciting!”

A versatile musician if there ever were one, Viola was born in 1919 in Brooklyn, surrounded by a musical family to nurture his talents at an early age.

“I was the youngest child from a big Italian family and we had all kinds of instruments at the house including guitars, mandolins and an upright player piano,” Viola recounted. “My brother, who played mandolin, needed someone to accompany him so he taught me a few chords on guitar to play behind him.”

Viola is survived by his wife Glenna, his sons Dan and Jeff, and his granddaughter.

Originally Published