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Guitar Legend: Al Viola

Written by Guest Writer • January 28th, 2014
Guitar Legend: Al Viola

Al Viola: Guitar Legend

In 1992, I was performing extensively under the stage name Jimmy Ross through Orange and Los Angeles Counties as a solo pianist/vocalist entertainer and occasionally in jazz trio and quartet settings. I had just started a double emphasis graduate program in piano and vocal performance at California State University.

I was performing two nights a week across the street from where Diana Krall was performing, right around the time she began working with Jimmy Rowles and her career started to take off. It was my last year of performing stride and ragtime at Coke Corner at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, and I was beginning to focus on performing more in a West Coast Cool Jazz style.

I met Al Viola while performing with my trio in Long Beach, at 555.s, The Sky Room and The Queen Mary. While I was performing on The Queen Mary at Sir Winston’s, Al was doing some performances locally. I asked him if he could meet for drinks or tea, and if I may interview him for musicological research I was doing at CSUF. Knowing Al was getting older, I did not want to miss out on this connection and possibly the only time I would have to get a first hand account of Al’s experience working with Julie (London) and Bobby. Al was not only the most talented guitarist I have ever worked with but also the nicest gentleman I have ever met. I affectionately called him Pops. I had lost both of my grandpas early in life. I saw him as a great mentor I could learn from.

Al met me a little after 5:00 at the Observation Bar on the Queen Mary. My heart was pounding a mile a minute, but I had spent a good week rehearsing what questions I would ask him. I knew we had about an hour only to meet as Al was performing I believe in Santa Monica at 9:00 PM that evening.

Pops! It is so great to see you (shaking his hand). I can’t thank you enough for agreeing to meet with me. [Al orders an ice tea]. I am passionate about Cool Jazz and specifically what it was like working here in LA County with the Bobby Troup Trio and Julie London. I am a Julie London fanatic, and plan to write her biography some day soon. Since Julie and Bobby are private people I want to get a first hand account of how it was working with them. But my first question is you are a living legend and have worked with everyone from Frank Sinatra, June Christy, Page Cavanaugh, Andre Previn … the list is endless. What is so unique I feel about you is not only your flawless technique but also your choice of harmonic colors and voicing. My question is are you classically trained and if so where did you study?

Thanks for the lovely compliments Jimmy and so nice to see a youngster keeping up the Cool jazz tradition. You play an elegant piano…. reminiscent of George Shearing.

I’m so honored, thanks Al. I love George as well as Bobby and Martin Denny too.

Yes I’m classically trained. I was touring and performing with the Page Cavanaugh Trio in New York, where Sinatra heard us and wanted to work with us. After a long engagement at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, I decided to move to Los Angeles to study and expand my craft. I left New York in 1949, and enrolled in the California Academy of Music. There I studied classical guitar and mandolin, music theory, composition and extensive harmony.

Your classical technique is obvious. Did you have a favorite classical composer you studied or performed?

Hmm good question. I was performing jazz so much too throughout LA, it is hard to say though I still really love the guitar repertoire of Villa-Lobos. I did also play a great deal of Sor, and some Rodrigo.

Did you ever play the Concierto Aranquez? I only ask, as it is a favorite of mine. I’m part Spanish. My mother is Galician. My brother Pete plays well and is studying this at his college. 

I didn’t study any concerti extensively. But I love all types of music. I’m performing quite a bit of bossa nova at the moment. Jobim of course.

Love Jobim. What are your favorite tunes?

Probably Wave and Quiet Night of Quiet Stars.

Wave for sure and probably Dindi, Look To the Sky and Dreamer. Back to Bobby and Julie. I’m a huge fan of Bobby Troup. You were a member of the original Bobby Troup Trio. What was it like to work with him and when did you join the trio?  

I met Bobby shortly after arriving in LA. Bobby is such an easygoing guy, we just clicked instantly. He is like a brother. We think similarly about music and improv. Bobby had composed several new tunes and asked me to join the trio for local club engagements, Lloyd Pratt on bass. The trio performed throughout LA, and I think we started around 1950 because it was about 5 years before I recorded Lonely Girl with Julie. Bobby and I did duo engagements too, I remember specifically performing quite a bit at Café Gala which was a really popular dinner club on the Sunset Strip, as well as The 881 Club where Julie made her first splash.

Exciting Pops! Which leads me to the Goddess. Julie London. I can’t think of any artist that has affected me more than Julie. She always has such exquisite intimate phrasing, is so strikingly beautiful, and has such warmth and vulnerability in her voice. She doesn’t have to embellish a song with too much improv, scatting etc. There is a pureness and sultriness that is so appealing to me. There is nothing affected in her tone. Some singers like Sarah Vaughan can get on my nerves with words like Love sounding like Lulve. How was it like working with Miss Liberty on your first album together Lonely Girl? 

Julie is one of the warmest, sweetest ladies. As you know she has a small voice, and always preferred intimate settings with just guitar or trio to large venues or ensembles. After the success of Julie is Her Name, with Barney helping her create her signature sound with “Cry Me A River”. It was just obvious with Liberty the approach should be playing up the vulnerability, and loneliness she could create. It was definitely a concept album of sad and depressing songs. Julie was so wonderful and easy to work with in the studio. Though she could swear like a sailor when she forgot a line. (laughs hysterically) This is where she felt most at home. Recording or jamming in intimate circles and Julie shined. Julie was actually very nervous sometimes even terrified of performing in larger venues. She suffered from panic attacks in large venues. Vegas really took a toll on her morale, health and confidence. She almost had a nervous breakdown before leaving the nightclub circuit. She was at first always a mother, and also I think felt a great deal of guilt of being away from her kids on the road. One night she called me from Vegas crying that she was away from the comfort of her home, Bobby, and the kids. It broke her heart terribly. She always needed to feel safe. Being alone on the road could scare her to death in those late night hours. Did you notice how many times she sings “Lonesome Road” in her shows and concerts? She resented the loneliness of being on the road alone. It terrified her. I think since she had vaudeville parents, who were always on the road too, she was left alone as a child on many an evening. I think it is hard enough for anyway to feel alone, but to be six years old at home in a dull, dreary, cold, impoverished apartment with very little food in your belly must have been absolutely terrifying. I think she relived her abandonment issues, over and over during her life. This is why she always wanted a large family, and lots of dogs. Julie by the way always preferred large dachshunds to cats. She had many she was close to for years. Her dogs were like her children. (Between her, Bobby, and Bobby’s first wife, and Julie’s marriage to Jack there were 7 children). When her dog Patsy died she cried for 2 weeks. But one of course hears her fragile vulnerability and loneliness in songs like “Dark.” This is what made her renditions so great I think. You hear her vulnerability and loneliness in albums like Lonely Girl. I know the nightclub circuit thing was killing Julie (and they needed the money in those days to maintain their lifestyle, and remember they were raising 7 kids: 2 from Julie’s marriage to Jack, 2 from Bobby’s previous marriage, and Kelly and the twins. This is why Jack pushed to get the show Emergency up and running.

Yes I would guess since I come from a family of 5 siblings, that it must have been really difficult for Julie to be away from the kids and Bobby. So you think the show Emergency rescued Julie and Bobby from the nightclub scene and touring?

Oh my god absolutely, Jimmy! Julie and Bobby could work together, and be home more. The show did so well they have been able to really relax more. Emergency ran for I think 6 seasons and was like the most successful show on television next to All in The Family. 

But sad for us as she has not recorded an album since 1969’s Yummy Yummy Yummy. I always ponder how her sound would have developed and evolved through the decades. Obviously her range has dropped almost a 5th lower between Julie Is Her Name and Yummy.

Well Julie smokes like a frickin’ chimney. It is I think a nervous habit too. The only thing that sometimes bothered me would be her smoking at the estate. My eyes would sometimes be so damn blood shot. But we always had so many amazingly fun great times at Julie and Bobby’s home. One of the only times I got in a fight with her was over her damn smoking. She was nervous one night over a set at a local LA club, and I said, “relax, Julie. you look amazing.” She smoked 6 Marlboros (she was indeed the Marlboro girl). I said “Julie, I would like to be able to follow you, with all this damn smoke. I can cut it with a knife (gagging)” She looked at me. and smiled and said “yeah”. That was it. She was always so curt, and terse. There is the story when she divorced Jack, she ran into him shortly after. He said she looked fabulous, and she just held up the peace sign with her fingers and walked away. (laughing)

I would love to sit in on a jam session at the Troup’s. I bet they were amazing jam session parties.

Julie was always the perfect hostess. At the holidays, the fireplace would be lit, wonderful food, lots of laughs, party games, and of course listening to records till morning on their state of the art stereo. In the summer lounging around the pool, while we listening to Ray Charles (Julie was fanatical about him). Julie made the best potato salad; she was so domesticated (laughs).

I hear rumors Julie shares my love of Mexican food, and is a pretty awesome cook.

Laughing, Oh my god her nachos and enchiladas are out of this world. She always loved to cook for friends. Bobby though said she would have very bizarre eating habits. Like eating left over chili with onions for breakfast at 7 am, or pancakes with berries at 3 am. Bobby couldn’t be in the same room with her when she go on her eating binges. Julie was always like that. When she was nervous before shows, she would eat like a bird, but when having a good time with close friends she could devour large plates of food. But I think the swimming helps her keep her figure. That is one of her favorite leisure time activities. Their backyard was like a Vegas resort with all the pool toys and floating lounge chairs. Julie would float on the water, and do crossword puzzles. People don’t realize how intelligent she is. Liberty made her into the sex kitten image, which she really resented. She knew practically every word in the damn dictionary. I remember she said one time “Bobby, hun, you are looking quite callipygian in those swim trunks.” I was like what? She said Al .. look it up. (like I flunked out of school) Well I looked it up and found out it meant… that Bobby’s butt looked good. I cracked up (no pun intended) for days on that one.

Al, you will always be a big part of the Julie formula. Meaning you have played on most of Julie’s most exquisite albums. Do you have a favorite? 

Well for the most beautiful memories I would say Julie At Home (1960). We just had such a fun relaxed evening. We arrived mid evening around 7. Had some dinner, and drinks, Julie made a wonderful dessert; I think it was a cherry pie. Then we just picked out songs, and she told us her keys and what she wanted. We prepped briefly and just recorded the album spontaneously. It was just so free and easy?

“Free and Easy .. easy and free that’s the way it ought to be.” (singing a la Bobby )

Laughing, great comeback Jimmy Jazz.

So I have read articles .. is it true you did not even rehearse before recording the album Julie At Home?

No not at all, the greatest joy is to jam with close friends you know so well it is just spontaneous creation. I think it shows in the music. I think Julie sounds at her happiest, and most relaxed on this album. If you listen closely you don’t hear her breath between phrases as in other albums. The darker albums like Lonely Girl, About The Blues, Love on The Rocks seemed to take Julie to some sad and very vulnerable places. You know Julie had a horrific childhood of poverty and loneliness, also the interim between her marriages to Jack and then Bobby was very hard. Julie needs to feel safe, and there are 3 things that make her the happiest-Bobby, her children, and the home they created together. Oh and her dogs.

I agree, Julie At Home is such a warm cozy feeling album. I always associate it this album with eating gingerbread or pumpkin pie by the fireplace with a cup of chai tea.

But with your sets of film noir tinged songs; I would guess your favorite Julie album is About The Blues?

Wow Al, that is a hard one. I do love About The Blues, but I love every album, yet. I think she kind of missed the mark on a few albums.. specifically Wonderful World of.. , You Don’t Have to Be A Baby, and With Body and Soul. They sound like she was forced to change her sound for the changing market. Wonderful World… is way to Annette Funnicello/Connie Francis. I regret it is my LEAST favorite Julie album. It lacks her natural elegant sophistication and sultriness. I personally don’t care too for her rock rendition albums either. It is fine. Just not her at her very best .. Am I right to make this critique?

OH totally! Absolutely. Julie always called Yummy and Wonderful World…schlock. You should hear her hysterical rants on her experience in her first movie Nabonga.

Ouch.. I’ll stick with Red House which is still my favorite noir. Well my friend, I know we are running out of time. I can’t thank you enough for your interview. I will cherish this moment my whole life. Any parting thoughts on Julie, or thoughts on my career and playing style after working with me and hearing me sing/play?

As for Julie and Bobby, they are cherished friends, and the most honest musicians I know. Meaning you hear the truth, warmth, and intimacy in all their albums. It was wonderful working with them. As for you, keep exploring your color palette. You have a lovely feeling for the repertoire, but as you study, and explore, you’ll keep expanding your signature sound. I have to say I really do love your phrasing/arranging on Blue World. 

Thanks Al that means so much Pops. Give my love to Glenna (Al’s wife) and I hope I will have to pleasure of seeing you again, and jamming.

Note: I ran into Al only twice after this interview. Once at the NAMS convention in Orange County (Anaheim) I believe in 95. The second at a restaurant in Santa Monica, after recording a jazz set at 4th Street Studio. Al really helped me get a feel for what it was like working with Julie and Bobby. Al sent me some clippings of performances with Bobby Troup Trio and with Julie. They performed for John. F. Kennedy in 61, and I wish I would have thought to interview Al, on meeting the President, and Julie’s performance that evening.

This interview can also be found in Lady Liberty: The Definitive Julie London Handbook available on Amazon.

Interview and text by: J. R. Spencer

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