Vintage Guitar - February 2017 - Open - 18
uitarist Al Caiola died November 9.
He was 96.
In addition to two Billboard Top 40 instrumental hits in 1961 with his original versions
of the themes from TV's "Bonanza" and the
title tune from The Magnificent Seven, as a
band leader he created an oeuvre of more
than 60 albums.
Few of Caiola's guitar contemporaries
enjoyed more commercial appeal; his album
sales were perhaps exceeded only by Chet
Atkins, but he was in demand as a session
player and appeared on hundreds of dates;
he routinely recorded with Frank Sinatra,
Tony Bennett, Barbara Streisand, and others, but some of his most notable sessions
included Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife"
and "Dream Lover," Ben E. King's "Stand
By Me," Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs.
Robinson" and "Bridge Over Troubled
Water," Johnny Mathis' "Chance Are," Del
Shannon's "Runaway," and Buddy Holly's
"It Doesn't Matter Anymore," "True Love
Ways" and "Rave On."
During a wartime hitch in the military,
Caiola rose through the ranks and ultimately reached the position of Marine
bandleader by age 25. After separation
from the service (and in part because of
tutelage from veteran studio guitarist Tony
Mottola), he signed on as a staff guitarist
at CBS, in New York, from 1946 to '56, and
achieved first-call status.
"Tony really took me under his wing
and showed me so much," Caiola recently
recalled. "It was such a great friendship. I
played countless commercial jingles and
hundreds of radio and TV shows. The big
ones were Ed Sullivan's 'Toast of the Town,'
Arthur Godfrey's 'Talent Scouts,' and 'The
Jackie Gleason Show.'"
Because of his first-call session status,
Caiola eventually withdrew from his gig
"I had so much lucrative work on the
outside, so I made the obvious choice," he
said. "I had the opportunity to work for
many people as opposed to just one person.
Dozens of contractors were calling me for
dates. I worked at RCA, Columbia, and
MGM, who all had a stable of artists, and I
became a part of the scene. But, I left CBS
on great terms."
Caiola once spoke to me about his recording with Buddy Holly.
"I did all of his New York sessions, including
'Rave On,' 'True Love Ways,' and 'It Doesn't
Matter Anymore' in 1958. I remember producer Bob Thiele walked out of the booth
after a take and said, 'Buddy, that was great
but I didn't understand one thing you said.'
Holly said, 'Mr. Thiele, you ain't supposed to.'
"For that date I used a Gretsch Country
Club which had good highs. And we all
used Ampeg amplifiers. Tony (Mottola),
Art (Ryerson), Bucky (Pizzarelli), Mundell
(Lowe), Joe Cinderella, Don Arnone, and
the rest formed The Manhattan Guitar
Club. Everett Hull designed amps for us
and we left them in studios all over town
so we didn't have to lug equipment around
New York City."
Caiola's two Top 40 hits for United Artists
were produced by Don Costa, who went on
to arrange and conduct for Frank Sinatra on
the West Coast.
"Don told me to play in the low register
like Duane Eddy and use the Bigsby vibrato,"
Caiola said. "'Magnificent Seven' was the
bigger hit, but 'Bonanza' led to doing the
Marlboro cigarette sessions. I had two bona
fide hit records but never went on the road
except for a few functions for distributors
and vendors, and a 'Mike Douglas Show' in
Philadelphia. I was just too busy with session
work. I got a great deal and remained with
United Artists for 10 years, from 1960 to
1970. To this day, people think I recorded
'Bonanza' for the television show. I wish
I had, but I had the hit. UA set me up for
60 sides a year. I did more than 50 albums
On hearing of Caiola's passing, Bucky
Pizzarelli said, "Al and Tony Mottola were
the top session guitarists in New York. They
were like Batman and Robin." Mundell Lowe
added, "Al will be missed so much. I have
such fond memories of working with him
in New York. He was a brilliant player and
a truly wonderful gentleman."
"I had a chance to talk to Al while researching my book on Paul Simon, and as
a writer trying to tell a multi-generational
story about the musicians and music industry of the 20th century, he was a crucial
source," said author Peter Carlin. "Al's
first-hand knowledge went back nearly 70
years, featuring unique insights into key
musicians and works of the last century. His
memory was razor-etched, his command
of details and context encyclopedic. And
at the same time he was extraordinarily
warm and generous, speaking of his craft
and compatriots with great love and
After decades in the studios, Caiola
moved to South Palm Beach, Florida, and
toured with singers Steve Lawrence and
Eydie Gorme for 28 years. He also made
personal appearances well into his 90s and
finally relocated in New Jersey to be with
family. - Jim Carlton
Al Caiola: Jim Eigo. Al Caiola photo courtesy Mel Bay Publishing.