Tony Mottola

Guitarist and composer who became a regular accompanist for Frank Sinatra

Anthony Mottola, guitarist: born Kearny, New Jersey 18 April 1918; married (one son, three daughters); died Denville, New Jersey 9 August 2004.

Frank Sinatra made just one record with only a guitar for accompaniment. The song was "It's Sunday" and the guitar belonged to Tony Mottola.

Sinatra had rejected the original arrangement by Don Costa, saying, "You're missing the whole point. I want this to be a very intimate thing. Let me do it with Tony to show you." The 1983 recording of this tender love song for an ageing couple is enhanced by Mottola's sympathetic playing.

He had first played with Frank Sinatra on CBS radio in the 1940s, making a series of recordings with him soon afterwards. Then, in 1980, when Sinatra's regular guitarist, Al Viola, left, Sinatra asked Mottola to join him.

By now Mottola had been playing for 40 years and, on the whole, disliked touring, but he was persuaded when Sinatra said that his wife, Mitzi, could travel with him. Sinatra appreciated that his vocal range had narrowed and he chose songs that reflected this. He and Mottola would perform a duet each night, usually of "September Song" or "As Time Goes By", and Mottola was also given his own solo spot in the show.

Mottola played a season at Carnegie Hall with Sinatra in 1988 and they performed together for President Ronald Reagan at the White House. In 1983, the guitarist recorded a tribute album to Sinatra entitled All The Way.

Tony Mottola was born in Kearny, New Jersey in 1918, some three years after Sinatra. At first he wanted to play the saxophone but his parents would not allow him to travel to lessons on his own and he had to settle for a guitar where his father helped him with the chords.

His talent was quickly recognised and he was playing regularly on local radio from the age of 14. In 1936 he joined George Hall and his Orchestra and his first record was with the orchestra accompanying Dolly Dawn on "Shine". By the time he was 20, Mottola was a guitarist with the CBS radio network. He graduated to working on the highly popular Your Hit Parade, and then a spin-off, Broadway Bandbox, both of which featured Frank Sinatra.

Following the success of the Nat "King" Cole Trio, Mottola formed his own trio and, in 1947, accompanied Sinatra in a series of intimate recordings. The songs include "S'posin'" and "We Just Couldn't Say Goodbye" but Mottola commented, "I'm sure Frank didn't pick them all. Why else would he sing a dumb song like 'My Cousin Louella?' "

The noted guitarist Carl Kress appreciated Mottola's talent, and they recorded acoustic duets together: their "Jazz In G" (1945) is still widely acclaimed. Mottola also worked with Al Caiola in a small group that showed their love of Django Reinhardt's innovative playing. The two guitarists provided the accompaniment for Open Fire, Two Guitars (1958), which proved to be a million-selling album for Johnny Mathis.

In 1951 Mottola became the musical director for the CBS drama series Danger, which was directed initially by Yul Brynner and then Sidney Lumet, and showcased such young, unknown actors as James Dean, Sal Mineo and Rod Steiger. The theme music featured a single, repeated note interrupted by a dramatic chord. To the public, it was "the Danger chord": within the industry, it was "the Tony Mottola chord". Mottola only had three days to write the music for each episode, which would be played live. In one episode Mottola also played an on-screen bandleader, but he enjoyed the frenzied pace and stayed with the show for six years. In 1988 he scored one of Lumet's films, Running On Empty, starring River Phoenix.

After Danger, Mottola joined Skitch Henderson's Orchestra which provided the accompaniment for the numerous guest stars with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, a job which stretched from 1958 to 1972. He also worked on The Perry Como Show (where he was strongly featured in the weekly segment "Sing to Me, Mr C"), The Sid Caesar Comedy Hour and Sing Along With Mitch. He won an Emmy for his score for Two Childhoods, a TV documentary about the politician Hubert Humphrey and the writer James Baldwin.

During the Fifties and Sixties, Mottola was rarely out of recording and television studios. He was an integral part of Ray Conniff's Orchestra and Chorus, which made several million-selling albums. The orchestra leader, Enoch Light, had his own labels, Command and Project 3, and he released several easy listening albums with his Light Brigade, again with Mottola. He also played rock'n'roll and was part of the so-called Wrecking Crew which provided the accompaniment on numerous hit records, notably for the producer Phil Spector.

Mottola released several solo albums. His Mr Big (1959) is an early experiment in stereo; he came to terms with the new music in Tony Mottola Joins the Guitar Underground (1967).

Mottola retired in 1989 but he continued to practise every day. The guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli said of him, "His sound was very warm, tender and expressive. He never hit a bad note in his life."

Spencer Leigh

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