Al Viola, Celebrated Guitarist, Dies at 87

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Al Viola, who Frank Sinatra called "one of the world's great guitarists," died this past week of cancer at age 87. Viola played the mandolin on The Godfather soundtrack.


And now we take a moment to remember a musician you've probably heard, but not heard of.

(Soundbite of music from "The Godfather")

ROBERTS: That's Al Viola playing the mandolin in the theme from "The Godfather." Viola was really a guitarist though. He recorded more than 500 albums with artists ranging from Steve Lawrence to Marvin Gaye. His first success came in the '40s, playing in the Page Cavanaugh Trio.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Once, when the trio was playing on "Sunset Boulevard," Frank Sinatra stopped by. Sinatra was so impressed that he hired Viola as his guitarist, beginning a 25-year collaboration.

(Soundbite of song, "That's How Much I Love You")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) That's how much I love you, baby.

ROBERTS: Sinatra once called Viola one of the world's greatest guitarists. Viola told an interviewer last year he loved playing with Sinatra because they never played a song the same way twice.

Mr. AL VIOLA (Guitarist): He had confidence in me, which I - which I love very much. So what we did a song, just when I thought he would hold a certain note, it was completely different. It was my challenge. I loved it.

(Soundbite of song, "That's How Much I Love You")

Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) That's how much I love you, baby.

ROBERTS: Jazz singer Judy Chamberlain performed with Viola in Los Angeles many times in recent years. She said Viola called Sinatra the old man, even though they were about the same age.

Ms. JUDY CHAMBERLAIN (Jazz singer): If you see videos of Sinatra, he's got Al at his left elbow or his right elbow. He knew he could count on him, and of all the guitarists in the world, because he knew Al could be right there and make it up as he went along as he got in trouble.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CHAMBERLAIN: He was a chameleon. He could play in any style. He could create an arrangement down the spot.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Al Viola kept playing and improvising until shortly before his death this past week at the age of 87. His last gig was at a Jazz Supper Club in January.

(Soundbite of music)

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