[Exotica] Al Caiola interviewed

J.F. Cameron jessicafordcameron at yahoo.com
Sun Jan 25 09:43:01 MST 2004

This is from another mailing list I'm on--thought it would be good here, too.


ndegstrom <peggyfan at earthlink.net> wrote:
To: songbirds at yahoogroups.com
From: "ndegstrom" 

Date: Sun, 25 Jan 2004 17:27:17 -0000
Subject: [songbirds] Al Caiola interviewed

The Swinging Sounds of Al Caiola 
The guitarist had hits with 'Bonanza' and 'The Magnificent Seven,' 
and played with just about everybody who ever recorded on the East 

by Scott Eyman
Palm Beach Post, January 25, 2004

It was a great time for guitars. There was the driven, maniacal Dick 
Dale, the twang of Duane Eddy, the gentle ease of Chet Atkins. 

And then there was Al Caiola, who recorded over 50 albums, played on 
what seems to have been half the session work in New York City for 
decades and had two instrumental hits in 1961 alone (his version of 
the theme from "Bonanza" reached No. 19).

In those years, Caiola took everything he could get, because he 
wanted to work and he had stamina to die for. "I'd often do three 
three-hour sessions," he remembers, "and pick up an 11:30 p.m. 
session, and start all over at 10 a.m. the next day."

Caiola has been a part-time resident of South Palm Beach since 1979, 
but it's only in the past two years that he's become a full-time 

Yet don't get the idea that he's retired. Musicians don't retire, 
they just have longer and longer down-time between gigs. Caiola still 
goes out with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. When they work, he 
works, and that's just the way he likes it.

Caiola was born in Jersey City, N.J., 82 years ago, the son of a 
barber. As a boy, he had ambitions to be a singer. Nick Lucas, a sort 
of singing troubadour, was big then, strumming the guitar while 
singing in a reedy baritone.

Caiola's father thought it would be a good idea for his son to 
combine the two skills. But Lucas didn't play the guitar like Django 
Reinhardt, whom Caiola spent a lot of time listening to. Slowly, the 
instrument took precedence over the voice.

By 1942, Caiola was already a proficient working musician, but like 
people in every branch of show business, he enlisted in the war 
effort. Caiola joined the Marines and toured the South Pacific with 
Bob Crosby's band through 19 islands, including Guadalcanal and 

Then Caiola had to pack his guitar away and invade Iwo Jima. He 
landed on the third day as part of the Fifth Marine Division, as a 
stretcher bearer, and about all he'll say was, "It was bad. Those 
islands were landing strips with cemeteries attached."

The next time he played his instrument was at the dedication for the 
Iwo Jima cemetery.

After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Caiola spent 
three months in Japan as part of the occupying force. "At first the 
Japanese were resentful," he remembers. "But then we made friends, 
like Americans do. After that, the Japanese military still resented 
us, but the general population admired us. 'Stay here,' people told 
me, 'be our teachers.'"

Caiola got out of the Marines in June 1946, and it was back to New 
York. Rosalie Fiocco was part of the old neighborhood, the sister of 
a high school friend of Caiola's. There hadn't been any sparks 
between them until Caiola was in the Marines. The letters they 
exchanged unlocked something; they got married a year after Caiola 
returned home, and they're still married 56 years later, which might 
be some sort of record for a musician.

Hot stars and 'a cold tomato'

Caiola had earned his union card before the war, so he could work in 
clubs, but he had a bit of luck when he auditioned for the CBS 
orchestra and got the job. He stayed for the next 10 years, working 
in the orchestras for, among others, the Jackie Gleason, Arthur 
Godfrey, Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen TV shows.

The starting pay was $125 a week, and Caiola thought he'd died and 
gone to heaven. Add in free-lance session work, and he was on his 
way. Whenever Tony Mottola, the premiere East Coast guitarist, 
couldn't make a date, he'd recommend Caiola.

Caiola liked working for almost everybody except Ed Sullivan. "He was 
a cold tomato. He never came up to us or sat in, the way Steve Allen 
would. You remember the way Sullivan looked? That was the same way he 

After a number of years, he got the feeling that working for one 
person was not the best choice for a musician. Upset that one guy and 
you're done. But if you're working for 80 different people, and one 
of them doesn't like you, so what? So Caiola left CBS and began free-
lancing and walked into the greatest success of his life.

He worked constantly. Connie Francis, Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, 
Eddie Fisher, Bobby Darin, Perry Como, you name it. Lots of hit 
records. He can't remember them all, but he can remember 
recording "Splish-Splash" with Bobby Darin on April 26, 1958.

He was in bands fronted by Percy Faith, Morton Gould and Andre 
Kostelanetz, played on the great, melancholy albums that Jackie 
Gleason built around the soaring trumpet of Bobby Hackett. "Gleason 
couldn't put notes down or anything like that. But he would come out 
and give the downbeat, then spend the rest of the session in the 
control room. Besides Hackett, we had Charlie Ventura, Charlie 
Shavers, Buddy Morrow, Toots Mondello, Chris Griffin. A great band. 
All those albums were done at the Capitol studios in New York."

Gleason made good music, and he was good to work for. After one album 
was completed, he gave everybody in the orchestra a Bulova watch. 
Caiola still has his.

In those days, one three-hour recording session was expected to yield 
a bare minimum of three or, preferably, four finished songs. If you 
think about it, this is a brisk working pace, so session work meant 
you were a high-line pro, able to sight-read anything, run through it 
once, and nail it on the first or second take. Many session musicians 
would actually get worse after three or four takes, because they'd 
begin to overthink the material and freeze up.

As his recordings demonstrate, Caiola had a light, liquid touch with 
the guitar, very melodic, very musical. "Al is an excellent 
commercial guitarist," says Moe Wechsler, a pianist who played on 
dozens of sessions with Caiola. "He's not a true jazz guitarist, like 
Joe Pass, for instance, but he could play jazz, he could play 
classical, rock and roll, R&B. Al could do anything that was 
required; he's the classic, well-rounded musician."

Paul Cohen, who put in years with Count Basie as well as session work 
in New York, says of Caiola: "Al has a very cultured sound. He's very 
good behind a vocalist. He can conduct an orchestra, he can write for 
an orchestra, and he's the most wonderful guy to have in the band, 
because he thinks of the orchestra first and the soloist next. He 
thinks like a vocalist, because he played for them all his life."

In the early '60s, Caiola stepped out from anonymous session work and 
had a couple of hit records under his own name. Elmer Bernstein's 
surging theme from "The Magnificent Seven" gave Caiola a hit, as did 
the theme from "Bonanza." Caiola gives much of the credit for these 
records to arranger/conductor Don Costa, who gave him his shot at 
fronting a band.

The biggest surprise of these years came on a date at 
Columbia. "Ernie Altschuler was producing. 'This girl's a kook,' he 
said, and that was all he said. It was 11:30 at night, the fourth 
session I'd had that day.

"So this girl named Barbra Streisand walks in and sings 'Bye, Bye 
Blackbird.' Man, everybody was gassed! She was a Greenwich Village 
chick; leather boots, the whole wardrobe. But, boy, could she sing!"

Caiola made a lot of money, and he lost a lot of money. Bad 
investments, mainly apartment houses in Atlanta and a movie theater 
in Philadelphia. No matter. "We lived well, and we always had a big 

Working with Sinatra

Over the years, Caiola worked sessions with practically everybody who 
recorded on the East Coast, including Frank Sinatra, but he never 
toured with Old Blue Eyes until 1991. By that time, Sinatra's voice 
had changed, but he hadn't.

"Frank wasn't singing so good anymore, but he was still magic. He was 
always very appreciative of good musicians. He always acknowledged 
us; at a session, he'd come up and shake hands.

"He never raised his voice once. If you did something he didn't like, 
you'd get a stare. A really cold stare. But a wink, that meant you'd 
done something good and he appreciated it. Frank was adamant about 
knowing what he wanted; he was a perfectionist and expected you to be 
a perfectionist, too.

"When we toured, he didn't interact with the musicians much; 
generally, he held himself a little aloof. He played for the 
audience. He was OK physically, but he had lapses remembering lyrics, 
so we had teleprompters with the lyrics in case he forgot.

"Frank was Frank, you know? He had his scuffles with Buddy Rich for 
years, ever since the Dorsey days, but when Buddy was in the hospital 
dying, Frank paid the bills. When Don Costa had heart trouble, he 
recuperated at Frank's house in Palm Springs."

The months on the road with Sinatra were an exception; Caiola didn't 
particularly like the road, and he never wanted to move to L.A. New 
York was in his and Rosalie's blood. But in 1974, Steve Lawrence 
asked him to go to Vegas with him for three weeks.

Nearly 30 years later, they're still working together. "We're one of 
the few acts that go out with a full orchestra. Most places just use 
a small group and a lot of amplification. But there's nothing like 
the sound of a big orchestra."

When he's not out with Steve and Eydie, Caiola listens to Joe Pass, 
Wes Montgomery and, among the younger generation, John Pizzarelli, 
Earl Klugh and Jimmy Bruno. He doesn't listen to much Al Caiola, 
because he hears too many mistakes.

By his standards, the last real songwriter was Burt Bacharach, and he 
has no interest in rock guitar. "I find it unmusical, that's all. 
There used to be a sign over the entrance to the studio at Decca 
records. 'Where's the melody?' it said. That's what I think of when I 
hear rock."

He still practices, or, rather, "plays songs. I don't practice. I 
just play stuff all the way through to get warmed up and keep my mind 
refreshed." Lately he's had the pleasure of seeing a bunch of his old 
albums reissued as lounge music, the new name for Easy Listening.

His main regret seems to be that he never got a chance to work with 
Bing Crosby, except once when he appeared on Ed Sullivan's show. "I 
admired him; he set the stage for Sinatra and Como and all the rest."

Caiola and his wife have a son and a daughter and four grandchildren, 
and there's not a musician in the bunch. He doesn't seem to mind.

"Rosalie and I have a great life together here. She doesn't play, but 
let me tell you something, she has a great ear. I'll call her, 
say, 'Listen to this,' and play something for her and she'll point 
out exactly what's wrong."

"So here I am. The music I play now is good, just like it always was. 
I figure it's a good way to end a career."

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