Remembering guitar great Al Caiola

Frank Vignola, left, and Al Caiola share a laugh at the Sanctuary. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Frank Vignola, left, and Al Caiola share a laugh at the Sanctuary. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Video: Al Caiola with Frank Vignola at the Sanctuary in Chatham, January 2015

By Kevin Coughlin

Way back in my teen years, late-night TV was filled with “special offers” for records by people you never heard of.

One of them was The Best of Al Caiola.

Al who?

Frank Vignola, left, and Al Caiola share a laugh at the Sanctuary. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Frank Vignola, left, and Al Caiola share a laugh at the Sanctuary in 2015. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Fast-forward several decades to January 2015… and there he was, in the flesh, at the Sanctuary concert series in Chatham.

At 94, Caiola still coaxed tuneful sounds from his electric guitar. The evening’s featured artist, jazz virtuoso Frank Vignola, attested to the man’s greatness.

Al Caiola, it turns out, was every bit as legendary as the old TV commercial insisted. The Jersey City native, a Marine who served on Iwo Jima in World War II,  scored hits with instrumentals of the Bonanza and Magnificent Seven themes.

'JUST PRACTICE!' The late, great Al Caiola, pictured with the author in 2015.
‘JUST PRACTICE!’ The late, great Al Caiola, pictured with Yours Truly in 2015.

Over a career spanning more than 50 albums, he recorded with everyone from Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett to Buddy Holly, Glen Campbell and Simon & Garfunkel.  I asked his advice for budding guitar- slingers.

“Just practice!” he said with a laugh.

The presidential election drowned out news of Caiola’s death, on Nov. 9, 2016, at an Allendale nursing home. He was 96.

How good was Al Caiola in his prime?

“Al’s tone was the sweetest I have ever heard. It’s like butter. He also was one of the sweetest people I have ever met,” Vignola said via email.

Vignola ranks Caiola among the greatest guitarists of the last 100 years, “right up there with Les Paul, Tony Mottolla and Charlie Christian.

PLAY IT AGAIN, AL: Still tuneful at 94, Al Caiola performs at the Sanctuary in Chatham. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
PLAY IT AGAIN, AL: Still tuneful at 94, Al Caiola performed at the Sanctuary in Chatham in 2015. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“He could read music like a champion. My first experience with Al was in the studio for the NJ Guitar Mafia recording, and he sight-read the two-staff piano part. A great lesson.”

Caiola gets bonus points from Vignola for his instrumental success.

“Very few artists as instrumentalists without vocals were able to achieve commercial success,” he said.

Guess I should have bought that album.

Al Caiola is survived by his wife, their son and daughter, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

VIDEOS OF FRANK VIGNOLA

Video: Fretboard fun with Frank and Al

Video: Frank Vignola, Al Caiola and friends celebrate Django Reinhardt

Video: Getting cheeky: Audra Mariel with Frank Vignola and Al Caiola

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